Behind the curtain at 911

In a dimly lit room at 4100 4th Avenue, Jules MacMillan sits before a bank of computer screens, with lights flashing and radios squawking in her ear. The room is tense. An “urgent call” is unfolding somewhere beyond the walls of MacMillan’s control room.

In a dimly lit room at 4100 4th Avenue, Jules MacMillan sits before a bank of computer screens, with lights flashing and radios squawking in her ear.

The room is tense. An “urgent call” is unfolding somewhere beyond the walls of MacMillan’s control room. It’s her job to figure out what’s happening and send help.

MacMillan is a 911 dispatcher at the Whitehorse RCMP detachment. She and her shift-mate are responsible for knowing where all the territory’s on-duty and on-call officers are every minute of her 12-hour shift, and to send them where they are needed when someone calls for help. While she is a security-cleared member of the force, she has no formal rank. She won’t get much recognition for her work, vital as it is. She’s the voice on the phone for people in their darkest moments.

“We’re usually in the background, which is where we like to be,” said Gaylene Shoemaker, a fellow dispatcher and the manager of the RCMP’s operational communications centre.

When a call comes in, a light above MacMillan’s workstation flicks on, letting those around her know she’s handling a dispatch. If she can keep the caller calm, she’ll try her best to ask five questions. They might seem strange or unimportant, but the answers can mean the difference between life and death, especially in potentially violent situations.

RCMP dispatchers always ask the five Ws, Shoemaker explained, but one of them is a little different than what most of us were taught in grade school English class.

“We ask what, where, when, why and weapons,” Shoemaker said.

The answers will help MacMillan or her coworkers decide how many officers to send, how urgently they are needed, and most importantly, whether they’re headed into danger. They’ll also help her decide whether to send a fire crew or an ambulance as well.

“What we’re doing right from the minute the phone rings is assessing the risk. What’s going on, how high is the risk to the caller on the other end of the line, and what kind of risk there may be for the police officer we’re going to send in,” Shoemaker explained.

In the communities, RCMP members often patrol alone, even at night. Another member is always on call, but the decision to send them in or not often rests only with what information a caller can provide.

While a caller’s instinct may be to call the cops, tell them to show up ASAP and then hang up, that usually means it will take the police longer to respond, not less time. If the situation is urgent, emergency services are often en route while the caller is still on the line, but the more information they can give, the better.

“Callers are our eyes and ears,” Shoemaker said.

Calls can be difficult, especially from the communities. Many callers are distrustful of the police, and in some cases there are language barriers. The dispatchers have immediate access to translators for nearly every possible language, but still it can be difficult to keep callers on the line. The longer a caller keeps talking, the faster and more responsive the police or emergency services can be.

“Sometimes all we have to go on is the phone number. Sometimes the caller is in immediate danger. We’ve had calls where the phone line got ripped out of the wall in the midst of a domestic dispute. The bottom line is that sometimes the members have to go in blind,” Shoemaker said.

But even if they’re going in blind, they’re not going in alone. Dispatchers like MacMillan are always a radio call away, ready to send in backup or call for more services at a moment’s notice.

A similar system sends fire or EMS crews as well, and the three services often work in concert. In Whitehorse, the 911 call centre at the RCMP headquarters handles most of the calls, and passes the word to fire and EMS if they are needed. Out in most Yukon communities, people can call one of three numbers: the community prefix plus 5555 for the police, 2222 for fire and 4444 for an ambulance.

“If Dawson City were calling for a fire crew, they’d dial 993-2222,” explained Whitehorse Fire Chief Clive Sparks.

Sparks’s team has four dispatchers, plus one casual worker and himself. The ambulance service also has four, but the paramedics are also trained as dispatchers in case they need to fill in. Together with the RCMP, there are 20 professional dispatchers in the territory, and their work is often hectic.

“It’s like going from zero to 60 in one phone ring,” said EMS director Mike McKeage.

And there’s no telling when or how often the phone will ring. Sparks said emergency services professionals have been trying since the dawn of their profession to find a pattern, and while some predictors bear out – weekends in the summer are always the worst – more often it’s just dumb luck.

“People have been trying to nail this down across the country forever. People will talk about full moons, everything. There’s no pattern,” Sparks said.

The only predictor he and the others put any faith in is a superstition that dispatchers never utter aloud. Referring to it only as “the Q-word,” Sparks asked that it not even be printed.

“For us, if all of a sudden you get a period of time where the number of calls go down, down, down and nothing’s happening, you sort of get this tingly feeling that something’s going to happen soon,” Sparks said.

Most of the calls that come in are stressful, for obvious reasons. Some are frustrating, like the time a caller phoned in what sounded like a terrible car crash but gave no location. All three dispatch services were scrambling to triangulate the cellphone call, and sent helicopters out searching for the victims. But the whole thing was a hoax.

And there are the rare hilarious ones. Someone once called 911 because they desperately needed to know how much a gallon of water weighed.

“This was very important to them at 2:30 a.m. in the morning for Trivial Pursuit, I guess,” Sparks said.

Even accidental pocket dials make up a surprising number of 911 calls.

“Don’t put 911 into your speed dial,” Shoemaker said. “It’s not a difficult number to remember.”

But then there are the bad calls, and for dispatchers they can sometimes be harder to handle than for the officers, firemen or medics responding on the ground.

“I’m also a paramedic, and I’ve done both,” said EMS dispatcher Kirsten Sinclair.

“I find it more stressful to be on the phone. I don’t have eyes on the patient. I can’t get in there and do anything; I have to tell someone else how to do it. It’s a lot more difficult to do that than to do it yourself.”

Just because they might be shielded from the scene by their radios, dispatchers aren’t insulated against the trauma their profession faces. Dealing with hard calls and stress can still manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder if not monitored carefully.

“Not everyone is cut out for this job,” Shoemaker said. “When it’s all urgent and literally life and death … you just click into that ‘get ‘er done’ mode. You have to have that kind of personality.”

Contact Jesse Winter at

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