NORTH OF THE 55TH PARALLEL

By Victoria Wanke

It’s 3 a.m. and eerie silence fills the fire hall. The six-member crew of responders is sleeping in the back, and the occasional snore or grunt comes from the captain’s office across the hall. You are the only dispatcher on the platoon. You are the only one awake at this unearthly hour and possibly for the next five hours to come. Anticipating the next life-or-death situation, you sit there with your imagination running wild or practicing protocols for insane scenarios that you may encounter tonight.

It is too calm tonight … too calm. That is one thing you never want to say out loud because when you do, all havoc will break loose. 

Then it happens.

A fire breaks out and pages are sent out. “We have an emergency; all available personnel please respond to the fire hall.” The phone is ringing off the hook with concerned residents calling about water breaks, dogs roaming the streets, as well as scheduled medevac pickups and emergency medical calls. The trucks are going to and from the hall, everybody is running around full of adrenaline, and dispatch is in control of it all. It can get very stressful during a situation when different members of the department come into the dispatch office to try and assist. On occasion, they watch you work while listening to the hectic radio chatter, which can be even more nerve-wracking while under pressure. Another call comes in, and medics leave for the fire scene by ambulance, sirens blaring. 

This is a typical night shift for a dispatcher here at the dual-service fire hall in Thompson, Manitoba, Canada. This is a 24-hour service consisting of four platoons each with a single dispatcher. Our department consists of a fire chief, two deputy fire chiefs, a senior communications officer, four dispatchers, and 24 full-time fire medics. An additional 19 auxiliary-volunteer firefighters come out to assist during a general alarm when a page is sent out. We work directly with the fire medics and when the phone rings, they are literally a shout away.

Servicing a small city of approximately 13,000 residents and being the only fire and ambulance service within 100 km (60 miles), you can say we are comparatively busy. At this writing, we are heading into week nine of 2015 with almost 900 emergency calls, averaging out to 100 incidents every seven days. 

During day shifts, our unique fire hall is bustling with action. When not involved with handling emergencies or training, platoons also take care of annual business and apartment inspections. For dispatch, day shift means paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork, along with the emergency and business calls received. There is data entry for each incident, invoicing for ambulance trips, and taking the occasional business call from animal control or public works. If there is a monstrous situation, the senior communications officer generally acts as an extra set of hands to assist with non-emergent situations. That way, the dispatcher can deal with the emergency and not have to worry about the public calling about dogs at large.  

When the sun goes down, the night shift crew of responders gears up for a 14-hour tour of duty. With the chiefs gone home, the six-member crew takes watch over the city. When the emergency is over, the fire is out, everyone has gone home safely, and the platoon on duty has gone back to bed for the last one or two hours of the night shift, dispatch will remain wide awake. We will be selflessly sitting by the phone waiting to serve you, waiting to help you through your darkest hour each and every time.

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