A Day in the Life of Halton Police Telecommunications: Rob Thomas

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A Day in the Life of Halton Police Telecommunications: Rob Thomas
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Every year during the second week of April, the telecommunications personnel in the public safety community, are honored. This week-long event, initially set up in 1981 by Patricia Anderson of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office in California, is a time to celebrate and thank those who dedicate their lives to serving the public. We could not operate or survive as a modern day police service without the tremendous job that all of our Communications staff do day in and day out.

Halton Regional Police celebrates, and honours, the otherwise unsung hero on the other end of the line. To reflect on the important role of the 911 dispatcher as the first, first responder, we would like to share a day in the life with communicator Rob Thomas.

A Day in the Life

I was first at a loss of what to write to describe a typical day with Halton Regional Police’s Communications Bureau. Days seem to be routine in some respects and anything but routine in other respects. I wake up, spend a brief time in morning prayer, get ready for work, eat breakfast, grab a coffee and off I go. Not much changes with that routine, day or night.

Then, I realized that the “routine” part of the shift ends the moment any of us walk in the door. Urgent chaos then becomes the routine. Most of the time, we walk into the room, go to our lockers and grab our headset, find out where we are sitting for the shift and let our coworkers from the previous shift go home. Other times, we walk in the room and one can feel the intensity of a serious call being dealt with. You just know that you are walking into something once you hear words like “K9,” “perimeter,” or “armed,” to name a few. Tonight started out that way. The dispatcher beside me had a pursuit on the go and I sat down to a gun call and a theft in progress. No time to get settled; high gear from the get go.

Shift work is compulsory in Communications. We work the same hours that officers do on the road. Twelve hour shifts consisting of two day shifts and then two night shifts. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what is day and what is night. That’s simply a given with this type of profession.

Our primary tasks in Communications are divided into two areas: call taking and dispatch. Call takers answer the phone and enter the call into the computer. The computer recognizes the address and sends the call to appear on one of three dispatch screens: Oakville, Burlington or Georgetown/Acton/Milton.

Today, after starting out on dispatch for a bit during shift change, I moved to call taking for the remainder of my shift. Before I can answer my phone, I have to sign into various computer systems. Obtaining information from callers is key and to do so, we need the tools at our fingertips. To accommodate this, we have three large monitors to stare at, all of which have key components to them. We must all have the ability to query various computer systems that can access data bases world-wide. The public and the responding officers need to be kept safe. Collecting as much information as quickly as possible from various sources, is essential to meet public and officer safety demands.

Call takers answer calls in priority. 911 calls are taken first for life-threatening situations or crimes in progress. Service call lines are answered secondary. Halton Police is the Primary Service Answering Point for the Region, meaning that all calls for Police, Fire and Ambulance are answered first by Halton Regional Police. Anyone requiring Fire or Ambulance is transferred to that agency’s call centre. Everyone has their own definition of what an emergency is. Sometimes call takers need to help callers reassess if what they are calling about is truly an emergency. A loud neighbour’s stereo blaring at 3 a.m. may be annoying and frustrating, but it’s not an emergency in the true sense of the word. The person being assaulted, or whose house is on fire, or is having a heart attack needs to have a free line to call in to for immediate response. Time is of the essence. Pocket dials from cell phones tie up emergency lines and occur repeatedly.

Obtaining information from another person can be challenging at any given time. Obtaining information from a caller during an emergency can be filled with additional obstacles, such as age, intoxication, surroundings, imminent danger and life experience. Adrenaline alone can fuel a caller’s emotions and make it difficult to receive the simplest of details. What may seem obvious can be the most tedious. Your life is in danger, a loved one can’t breathe, someone is breaking into your house… all emotionally charged situations, which require timely answers. What is your emergency? What is your address? Were any weapons indicated or seen? When did this occur? These are only a few of many, many questions asked during a call. The root of every question is always the same, public and officer safety.

Dispatch positions have additional display monitors to operate the actual radio system, which allows communication and transmissions to flow between Communications, officers on the road, as well as neighbouring agencies. After the information is received by the call taker, it goes to the dispatcher. All calls are put in priority with “Urgent” at the top of the list. The dispatcher usually receives multiple calls at the same time, all of which require attention and processing. Which call gets dispatched first? The car wrapped around a pole with persons injured or the house being broken into with the homeowners fearful that the suspects will find them before police arrive? What officers are closest to the call? Will K9 be required? Are there any hazards that would put responding officers at risk such as live hydro wires or a fuel spill? Will I need to set up a perimeter to help contain a crime scene? Are specialized tactical units needed? These are a few of the questions the dispatcher processes for each call.

Amongst the series of questions, the dispatcher thinks about other things that are happening throughout the town or city. At the same time that calls are being dispatched, officers are stopping vehicles and checking properties. Each and every traffic stop made is filled with unknowns. The safety of the officer is paramount. The location of the officer and the occupants in the vehicle cannot be forgotten about. Every road officer is equipped with an “emergency” button on their radio. If that button is activated, there is no wasting time getting assistance to the officer. Every officer wants to go home safe at the end of the shift. Communications plays a role in assisting the officer in doing so.

Everything that I have described can sometimes seem robotic. Automatic reactions come with certain situations. An officer stops a car. I check the registration information and make sure that any “red flags” are conveyed to the officer for his/her safety. Another element to the job is humanity. Sometimes that gets forgotten about. I could go through a series of calls that I have taken over a span of 30 plus years, but out of respect and confidentiality of victims, I won’t. I do however remember one of my best friends who stopped a suspect vehicle after an armed robbery. The information I did know was that the vehicle contained at least four suspects with sawed off shotguns. The officer had them at gunpoint and was yelling on the radio. I remember that as if it happened yesterday. As backup was racing to his aid, for a very brief moment I thought that this was going to be “the call.” The loss of any life is tragic, but losing the life of a close friend in a situation like that is unheard of. Thankfully, two suspects were apprehended and two fled on foot and were later captured with the assistance of K9. Nobody was injured. That call happened about 4:00 a.m. Sleep that day was next to impossible for each of us; adrenaline and shift work don’t mix well.

Working in Communications is a career profession. It takes a unique set of multi-tasking skills that must adapt to any unthinkable situation. And, like everything else around us, technology challenges us more and more. Most of the population owns a cell phone. At one time if there was an accident on the QEW, someone would have to drive to the nearest highway exit and find a pay phone to call 911. We may have received a couple of calls for one accident. Today, one accident can field a multitude of calls which don’t stop until emergency vehicles are seen arriving on scene. Call volumes escalate each year simply because of population growth and technological enhancements.

I could go on and on about this profession. Like anything else though, there needs to be balance. My personal life includes a wife whom I have been married to for 22 years. She can tell the type of day I’ve had from the moment I walk in the door. I don’t share details but I do share emotions. Faith has been a big part of our marriage. In addition to working for Halton Police, I entered St. Augustine’s Seminary in 2004. I was ordained as a Deacon in the Catholic Church in June, 2008. This walk of faith has allowed me to serve on the Multi-Faith Support Team, which offers spiritual assistance to our police membership. On days off, you can usually find me at St. John the Baptist Parish in Burlington or on an airplane travelling somewhere around the globe for my travel fix. 20 baseball parks down, 10 to go!

When I was asked to write this article, a thought crossed my mind immediately. Using the word “I” takes me out of my comfort zone. Regardless if it is on the phone, or on the radio at either end, teamwork is a must. Everyone must work together and help each other out. Again, public safety and officer safety depend on it. There’s no room for one person shows.

Over 32 years of working in this field, I have worked with a lot of great people and continue to do so. We all give so much to help so many people, complete strangers, which is one reason I sought this career. Help given to most emergencies begins by calling 911. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention humour to help get through the day. I may push the envelope (I prefer the term “excel”) in this area, but laughter is important. Timing may not always be the best, but it is a form of survival in this profession. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Dealing with tragic situations daily can take a toll on anyone. Healthy balance is key.

Rob Thomas
Communications Bureau
Halton Regional Police Service

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