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Comms Centre: Changing and adapting

June 4, 2020  By Sue Dawson

As I prepare for retirement after almost 37 years in the fire service, I can’t help but reflect on changes I’ve witnessed throughout my career. Current changes, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, are no different. The restrictions have challenged us to look to different methods of training. We have new policies, new procedures and safe work practices to implement into our communications centres.

In Ontario, we are completing the update to the certification process for NFPA 1061 to the 2018 edition of the standard. The written and practical tests will be ready to go soon. The challenge may be how to complete the practical tests while physical distancing.

The pandemic has certainly changed the implementation of NG 9-1-1 and the milestones are being moved back by almost one year. This is yet another huge shift in our communications world.

As we all celebrated 9-1-1 Communicator Week in April with videos instead of recognition events (due to physical distancing regulations), I was reminded of one thing that has not changed: the amazing work that communicators do each and every day, no matter what event comes their way.


While we were not able to have an actual awards event, I could not help but reflect on some of the great work that I reviewed in our communications centre. We experienced calls that started off as a “routine motor vehicle collision” but quickly turned into a widespread hydro emergency where the 9-1-1 line lights up with reports of meters blowing off the side of homes.

We experienced a weather event that was featured on the TV show Heavy Rescue 401 that included a 70-car pile-up on a 400 series highway. Calls for help came from the huge wreckage of vehicles, resulting in the challenge of matching up callers within the multi-kilometre event to responding fire crews who had to travel a distance on foot to reach their location.

We had an amazing example of teamwork with a call taker on the line assisting a family of four for over 20 minutes to aiding them in safely exiting a hazardous environment due to a fire, while the rest of the team dispatched trucks to the scene.

These are just a few examples of what communicators in our communications centre deal with in the usual calm, efficient, professional manner. They always say, “I am just doing my job, but what an important job it is.”

As I look back to when I started dispatching fire vehicles with pen and paper and very little training, through the process of bringing all this technology to dispatch centres as well as operations divisions, it makes me wonder what is next. Technology has been one foundation within a communications centre that has assisted us in being able to meet the expectations of dispatching multiple departments, of meeting the guidelines and best practices for service levels and trying to keep pace with the public perception of a quick fire response. Years ago, the thought of adding a computer or tablet to a fire vehicle was met with resistance. Now, if one of these devices are not working, it is quickly reported as a malfunction and is fixed as soon as possible. The reliance on data, mapping, routing trucks to events and continuous updated call information has become a must-have.

I am trying to shift my brain into what retirement will be like and continue to be optimistic that my next steps will be as rewarding as my many years in the fire service. The world has changed so much since I started in the 1980s but never as much or as quickly as we’ve seen this year. While I look forward to whatever my next chapter may be, I will fondly remember my career in the fire service as an amazing journey; one that will be hard to walk away from.

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

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