The Art Of Getting Along

Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Center Piece

After talking to Grant Ward there’s the temptation to apply, or, at least, become fire certified in anticipation of dispatching for the City of Edmonton Emergency Response Communication Center (ERCC), Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Either way, you’ll have to wait your turn for consideration.

Turnover at the center is minimal, although openings do come up every so often. It’s not easy, once you apply, to reach the top of the list. A lot of people who want to work here.  Requirements for an emergency communications specialist position include experience in a major metropolitan communication center and current Emergency Fire Dispatch (EFD) certification from the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED).

Relatively speaking, “There is no turnover,” said Ward, who started his emergency services career as an EMT in 1988 in the neighboring Fort Saskatchewan area. He switched to communications in 1993 since it favored longevity. Carrying more than 150 pounds on a stretcher up and down stairs and into the ambulance didn’t seem all that manageable 40 years down the road.

Ward left Fort Saskatchewan EMS in 1995 for the City of Edmonton ERCC. Emergency Dispatchers and firefighters in Edmonton alike belong to the Edmonton Fire Fighters’ Union (EFFU), an affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 209, and benefit from fire-specific training opportunities and education. Pay is equitable, as well as the health and vacation/sick benefits provided. The reclassification issue challenging emergency dispatchers in the U.S. is a moot point. “We’re treated as equals,” Ward said.

The ERCC hired two Emergency Dispatchers last year to replace retirees, and the new hires were selected from a short list of 12 applicants.

So, what’s the center’s secret?

“It’s a great place to work,” Ward said. “It’s a good job.” Ward is the second-most senior staff member, rising through the ranks from floor dispatcher and promoted to Chief of Emergency Communications three years ago. The three bars on his uniform signify his rank, which is equal to a platoon chief in Operations.

Ward said because of low turnover in emergency dispatch and field response, people have worked together for a long time. They are close-knit. "Rarely do we hear anything negative between our branches (fire rescue operations and dispatch),” Ward said.

Why? For starters, complementary shifts between firefighters and Emergency Dispatchers help to build positive working relationships. Fire platoons and dispatch platoons are scheduled for the same hours and rotations. They wear the same uniforms. Emergency Dispatchers go on firefighting ride-a-longs, and firefighters observe operations within the communication center. Firefighters and Emergency Dispatchers attend operational debriefings to understand counter perspectives better. A bad call, and they can attend the same incident debriefing. It's about building relationships.

On a personal level, Ward’s experience as an EMT benefits his role in communications, having worked in EMT field response for five years. He was—and still is—a Fort Saskatchewan paid on-call Firefighter/Fire Captain. Experience is beyond knowing how to work the radios and streets. Emergency Dispatchers and firefighters share a lot in common, Ward said. Both are forced to adapt at the drop of a hat to a rapidly changing environment.

He also understands the importance of professional appearance, either through voice or physical presence at the emergency. Everyone wears the same uniform. A clear presence of mind is essential despite the stress resulting from urgent and life-threatening situations.

Of course, nothing is without challenges. Sometimes problems arise from people working together over an extended period. Collaboration can falter. Disagreements and personality conflicts interfere.

Communication, he said, is essential. A liaison committee between the two branches (fire rescue operations and dispatch) strives to engage team members and encourage them to share their insights. Ward reminds platoon members of their value to the fire services, established standard operating procedures, and setting clear boundaries and goals while staying open to communication throughout the team.

People have options. “They can sit and steam or call the dispatch captain and have a discussion,” he said. “I talk to people regularly, rather than only when an issue comes up. It’s much easier to discuss a situation when you know the person.”

The ERCC has 42 full-time staff members including Emergency Dispatchers, administrators, and technical and training support officers. They serve a population of about one million people in a predominantly metropolitan area. All 911 calls forwarded to Edmonton Fire Rescue Services are coordinated by ERCC emergency communication specialists. They support 30 (soon to be 31) fire stations with almost 100 active apparatus available for response; relay information to on-scene incident commanders throughout events; and collaborate with other emergency response agencies, civic agencies, and utility companies. Firefighters respond to an average of 75 fire events daily.

The ERCC stopped dispatching medical calls in 2010 when Alberta Health Services (AHS) started transitioning emergency medical communication to AHS EMS dispatch centers. Firefighters still respond to EMS emergencies though. However, as Ward explained, they don’t see the call volume for medical emergencies and save the wait time at hospitals. Firefighters are first responders and aid on the scene; they do not transport patients.

“Life is good,” Ward said. “The people here are awesome. They make it enjoyable to come to work every day.”