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Comms Centre: Buy-in is critical for training standard

Before anyone becomes an emergency-service call taker or dispatcher and fields live emergency calls, you would think there would be a standard level of education, training and certification required. In Ontario, there is not. We are not alone in this situation. There is a movement developing in the United States toward standardized training and certification.

August 24, 2017
By Sue Dawson


There needs to be a higher level of professionalism associated with this public-safety position; this is a specialized discipline and, as with other vocations, the evolution of fire communications needs to be based on professional standards, certifications and recognized credentials.

In Ontario, each emergency service has its training silo. Policing agencies each conduct their own training based on the Adequacy and Effectiveness of Police Services under the Police Services Act. I believe police services have done a good job establishing a training network through which they share information and teaching plans, but ultimately, each service is responsible to determine its level of training. Emergency medical services in provincially run communications centres are far more standardized and established in Ontario.

The exact number of fire communications centres in Ontario is not even clear. Dispatching-related services can be purchased from other agencies, which adds to the complexity of the issue of training. Fire-services communicators should receive training that reflects some of the unique functions they provide, including incident management, accountability and entry-control systems, and the functions of the safety officer, to name a few.

What are the best practices for emergency service communicators? NFPA 1221 – Standard for Installation Maintenance and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems, 2013 Edition, is one for sure. Chapter 7 deals with the operation of a communications centre. Specifically, 7.2 speaks to Telecommunicator Qualifications and Training: “7.2.1 Telecommunicators shall meet the qualification requirements of NFPA 1061, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Public Safety Telecommunicator, as appropriate for their position.”  


Two professional organizations in emergency service communications are NENA (National Emergency Number Association) and APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials). Both organizations have a presence in Canada and have their own training documents. NENA has published a Recommended Minimum Training Guidelines for Telecommunicators document, which lists minimum topics and subtopics to train call-takers and dispatchers. APCO has a Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Telecommunicators document that identifies minimum training requirements with core competencies that the association recommends should be supplemented with agency-specific information.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being involved in an inquest or investigation into an issue involving fire communications, you need to be aware of these documents, and others, that may be considered best practices in emergency-services communication.  

Professionalism of emergency communications in the fire service is an issue. How do you get compliance with training guidelines and documents when there are several published documents from which to choose? There are many commonalities in the documents and programs, but how do we get standardized certification and accreditation?  

I believe standardized testing and certification is the answer. The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM), through the Academic Standards and Evaluation Unit (AS&E), is accredited to the NFPA 1061 (2014 Edition) I and II.  Telecommunicator I is based on call-taking knowledge and skills, while level II refers to dispatching knowledge and skills. Knowledge- and skills-testing materials have been updated and finalized by AS&E with guidance of the OFMEM’s NFPA 1061 provincial advisory committee, comprising experts from various fire departments. The process with skill sheets, scenarios and a team of lead evaluators is ready to participate in the process.

Now we seek the buy-in required by members of the fire service – including communications centres of every kind that are dispatching for fire agencies – to work toward certification and accreditation to NFPA 1061, Telecommunicator I and II. There are seven additional professional qualifications listed within NFPA 1061, 2014 Edition, but Telecommunicator I and II is where it all begins.

Sue Dawson has been with Barrie Fire & Emergency Service in Ontario in the communications field for more than 30 years.  She is the deputy chief of communications and business services. Contact her at

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