March 16, 2012
By Audrey Fraizer
A year ago, Parkland County Mayor Rod Shaigec celebrated the opening of the 2012 Alberta Winter Games office, delighted over the “major coup” for the tri-region and the spotlight the games will put on Parkland County, Spruce Grove, and Stony Plain.
“As we showcase our region as a first-class sport tourism destination, we also have the opportunity to display our proud sense of volunteerism and genuine hospitality,” he penned in the March 2011 Parkland Communicator newsletter. “I am confident the many athletes from across the province competing in these games will not only feel welcomed, they will leave with cherished memories they will hold for the rest of their lives.”
The reality of games bringing thousands into the region could conceivably raise stress levels at the Parkland County Emergency Communications Center (ECC). After all, a lot can happen over a four-day event featuring 2,800 athletes competing in 21 traditional and not-so-traditional winter sports, including alpine skiing, fencing, judo, synchronized swimming, and wrestling.
Not so, said ECC Supervisor Kerri-Doone Swedberg. ECC operations will go on as always; law enforcement and fire response will not skip a beat. If anything, it’s the volunteer duties that could accelerate anxiety levels. Swedberg is supervising communications from the temporary center the next room over in the same building as the ECC and most of the center’s dispatch staff signed up as volunteer radio and phone clerks while they’re not working. Non-dispatch volunteers, many of whom have never operated a hand-held radio, will train using a manual Swedberg developed from scratch.
“It certainly has been a task to pull this together for four days of games,” Swedberg said. “My group must know how the entire games work, from start to finish.”
The winter and summer games in Alberta, held during alternate years, take on the scope of the International Olympics. A torch rally opens the games and volunteers—an estimated 3,000 for the Alberta games—will direct athletes, coaches, and spectators by the thousands to venues plotted throughout the tri-city region.
Alberta’s snow levels won’t make the job any easier. Historic lows one month before opening ceremonies had team leaders scrambling for alternate sites. “Alberta is known for snow, and we don’t have any,” Swedberg said. “That’s not good for us.”
The dry conditions place a damper not only on the games but the relatively arid winter also signals trouble during the weeks before the spring rain arrives and greenery unfolds. Abundant dry vegetation in the predominantly rural area combined with strong winds and a careless flick of a burning cigarette butt create a perfect mix for fire disaster no matter the fury of Old Man Winter.
History proves it. The county responded to 486 outside fires between April and June 2011. Last year, Parkland County firefighters spent nearly three weeks assisting to control fires that destroyed 40% of nearby Slave Lake and that winter recorded heavier snowfall compared to this past winter.
The extent of fire coverage necessary—and the subsequent responsibility of coordinating fire response—took some of the sting out of the ECC’s loss of EMD services in 2009 when Alberta Health Services (AHS) changed the provincial system for ground and air ambulances services. The transition involved consolidating 35 dispatch centers into three centers and AHS issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for locations served by for-profit providers. Parkland County ECC submitted an extensive RFP. “We later served notice and withdrew from the transition process,” Swedberg said. “We needed to move on. So, we picked ourselves up, brushed ourselves off, and headed in a different direction.”
Parkland, a once predominantly EMS dispatch center, forfeited 80% of its business in the transition. Medical calls had been the center’s bread and butter. Staff was cut and the plans to renovate the facility were put on hold. Swedberg wasn’t about to compromise quality, but she was intent on building a business model offering a variety of services attractive to municipal fire and law enforcement agencies.
“It’s competitive,” Swedberg said. “A fire department might look at three different communications centers and then make a choice on the one that best suits its needs.”
The center’s package combines customer service and protocol with state-of-the-art delivery—radio equipment, GPS, and computerized mapping. ProQA® and AQUA™ are approved for purchase in the 2012 budget. Dispatchers spend one hour training per 12-hour shift, whether it’s mapping review, running fire scenarios, or writing in-house CDE quizzes. The four-member QA team provides daily, monthly, and quarterly call case review. In November 2011, Parkland ECC added another selling point to its package: Contrary to the majority of first-time ACEs, the ECC became accredited first using the Fire Protocol and Parkland is only the second communications center in Canada to achieve its fire ACE.
“ACE tells clients that our results are measurable and consistent,” Swedberg said. “We comply with industry standards.”
International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) Associate Director Carlynn Page said an agency’s placing ACE status predominantly in its portfolio is becoming more and more common and, because of what an ACE represents, increasingly landing on an agency’s “To-do” list.
“An ACE is external validation,” Page said. “A center might know it’s good but the ACE proves it. Someone outside the center has applied the stamp of approval.”
Despite the loss, Parkland County ECC is again thriving. The regional center provides 9-1-1 call response to more than 90,000 phone lines and dispatches 32 fire departments, five law enforcement agencies, animal control services, and public works for more than 60 municipalities in an area covering 22,600 kilometers (14,043 miles) with a dispatch population of 190,000. In addition to the seven fire departments in Parkland County, the ECC also dispatches fire for the counties of Lac St. Anne, Sturgeon, Leduc, Barrhead, and Athabasca, as well as the city of Spruce Grove and the towns of Westlock and Whitecourt.
The center’s 10 dispatchers are EFD certified and have also continued to renew EMD certifications. In 2011, they sent response to 11,000 incidents and processed more than 58,000 9-1-1 calls. A contract with a Calgary software company provides monitoring for employees working alone in field gas and pipeline positions. Regular dispatch isn’t affected and Swedberg plans to use the system for entry-level dispatch training.
The center’s staff went through a difficult period from the losses associated with the AHS transition but becoming the second in Canada to achieve the distinction of fire accreditation was something that, quite frankly, waved everyone on board.
“The core group that stayed was responsible for the ACE,” Swedberg said. “The hardships of losing colleagues and EMS made the accreditation even sweeter.”
Sandy Girvan, EMD, EFD-Q, said they were excited to reach the goal. She started at Parkland ECC in 2002, shortly before the arrival of EFD 10 years ago and has not regretted switching from an ambulance EMT-A position to a job where she is “invisible behind the scenes.” She is a member of the ECC’s Critical Stress Debriefing team and one of four on the center’s QA committee. The committee reviews every 9-1-1 call requiring fire response. Girvan admits committee members are “very specific” in their reviews but they apply the rules equally across the board. Like everyone else, her calls are subject to critical analysis.
“OK, we are strict,” Girvan said. “We have to be. We’re the first voice people hear during the worst times of their lives and we take great pride in our ability to help them. It is very fulfilling.”