The first call I answered was a little too easy. A 79-year-old woman in the 3000-block of Douglas St. had a stomach ache. I typed in the Saanich address into the empty field on the monitor in front of me and asked the caller a series of questions about her illness.
ProQA, the program used by emergency medical dispatchers for the B.C. Ambulance Service, confirmed the minor sickness, categorized the call as low-priority and an ambulance was sent out to the familiar locale – or at least it would have been, had I answered an actual phone call.
Instead, I was responding to Bill Hadden, the emergency medical dispatcher leading me through a media training session Aug. 16 in the ambulance service’s Saanich training facility.
Despite the low stakes, the pressure was on when Hadden took on his second role of my faux training session – a condensed 10-minute overview of a three-week-long training course.
From the seat behind me, Hadden transformed into a caller from a street address I’ve never heard of and had no idea how to spell. Finally I ask the caller and he tells me it’s in Boston Bar – a tiny community I admit I had to Google later to locate. The caller’s 78-year-old father has collapsed and isn’t breathing.
After what felt like 20 minutes of scripted questions, I arrive at ProQA’s suggestion: cardiac arrest. The process would take a trained dispatcher about 90 seconds to complete, Hadden said.
But even with the quickest dispatcher the arrival of an ambulance takes time.
Last month when Nicholas Woodiwiss’s heart stopped while riding his bicycle in Royal Oak, four bystanders performed life-saving cardiopulmonary respiration. The incident earned the bystanders a Vital Link award for the action they took in the nine-minutes before paramedics arrived and exemplified the zero-minute response time the ambulance service strives to achieve.
“You need to be reassuring,” Hadden said of the process of empowering callers with the knowledge they need to support the patient, which often includes administering potentially life-saving treatment. “You, yourself need to be calm, confident and clear. You need to direct people even when they’re not confident or losing hope.”
Meanwhile a counter tool popped up on the monitor to my left. Like a metronome, it set the pace for compressions. I told the caller I’ll count out loud while they perform chest compressions.
Leading a caller through CPR isn’t a situation Hadden deals with every day, necessarily, but after four years on the job, and thousands of phone calls, it’s one he’s used to managing. Part of that management involves asking questions exactly as they appear in ProQA – without changing a single word and risking a change from the original meaning – while counselling individuals through extremely traumatic events.
“You’ve gotta know when to rein them back in. Most people submit to requests,” he said. “You have to know what type of person you’re dealing with. Everyone’s subtly different.”
West Shore RCMP dispatcher Chelsea Chang was commended for keeping a five-year-old girl on the phone after the girl’s mother suffered from an epileptic seizure and lay unconscious outside her Langford home on Aug. 15.
Though Chang’s ability to remain calm and communicate with the young caller involves the same kind of care required of a B.C. Ambulance Service dispatcher, Hadden points to one of the major differences between ambulance dispatchers and those with other emergency services: the volume of calls.
Last year, B.C. Ambulance Service responded to 486,000 events across the province, or an average of 56 events per hour from three centres, whereas police and fire services are administered regionally.
The ground fleet travels 20.2 million kilometres per year or more than 500 trips around the world. The B.C. Ambulance Service currently employs 3,668 paramedics and dispatchers provincewide, and they’re looking for more. By welcoming media into their training room, the service is also hoping to attract new members for dispatcher training in September – if they’ve got the right skills.
It all comes down to compassion, flexibility and adaptability, according to Corinne Begg, provincial dispatch training officer.
“(Dispatchers need) the ability to remain calm in very stressful situations and to remain calm with all of the stimulation going on around you,” Begg said. “We’re looking for someone who’s able to have a lot going on at the same time.”
– With files from Kyle Wells