Special week honours unseen heroes of public safety

Communication Officer at her work station

You may never want to hear Anita Pearce’s (left) voice at the other end of the line but if you do, listen closely.  She could save your life.

Pearce is one of 20-plus Ambulance Communications Officers (ACOs) with the Kingston Central Ambulance Communications Centre (CACC), the call takers and dispatchers who serve as the first critical contact for those dialling 911.  In the midst of crisis, ACOs obtain the vital details needed by emergency first responders. Sometimes, they need to dispense life-saving information themselves. 

Often called unseen heroes, local ACOs will receive their well-deserved due during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week (April 9-15), an opportunity to showcase a challenging profession in which any 12-hour shift is a rollercoaster ride through varying levels of intense anxiety, fear and pain.   

“One caller has a sprained wrist, the next has an infant who has stopped breathing and the next has a husband in cardiac arrest,” says Pearce who has stayed on the phone with people through childbirth and CPR. “The job is a mix of crisis and control.  I feel the fear but I also have rules to follow so I can collect and communicate the information that will get help on the way immediately.”

Those rules are critical, but Pearce says they can be unintentionally thwarted by panicked callers.

“People will rush answers to my questions or get frustrated when I ask them to confirm their address or the nearest intersection,” she says.  “They think that if they get off the phone quickly then I can call the ambulance faster.  In fact, that process is already in motion while I’m talking.  Or they think they have to persuade me to send the ambulance, which is never the case.  It’s on the way.”

At the Kingston CACC, which is operated by the Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), Director Mark Halladay has the utmost respect for Pearce and her fellow ACOs, who must deal with stressful—often life-and-death—situations with both compassion and professionalism.

“ACOs might hear all kinds of chaos in the background but they have to be the calm at the centre of the storm—getting the information, providing first-aid instructions, coordinating emergency response vehicles and more,” he says. “They’re exactly who you want on the phone with you in a crisis.”

ACOs can be justly proud of their unique contribution to emergency services, says Mike McDonald, KHSC Executive Vice-President, Ambulatory Services.

“They might talk with someone for only three minutes but it might be the most traumatic three minutes of that person’s life,” he says.  “They can make a huge difference in a short time.”

Quick Facts about the Kingston CACC:

• operated by the Kingston Health Sciences Centre

• staffed by 31 full-time/part-time Ambulance Communications Officers (ACOs)

• covers an area of about 20,000 square kilometres with close to 520,000 people

• serves 13 hospitals, 10 police forces, 29 ambulance bases, 49 fire departments, 48 municipalities

• processed 101,807 ambulance calls in 2016.

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