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Comms Centre: September 2018

There is much to consider when it comes to taking calls and dispatching in the fire service.

September 5, 2018 
By Sue Dawson

It is always better to review your technology, operating guidelines and training on a regular basis and not when faced with an investigation due to a potential error or liability issue.

When you look for best practices within fire service communications centres, one document often referenced is NFPA 1221, Standard for the Installation Maintenance and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems. Chapter 7 refers to operations and 7.4 Operating Procedures describes what call answer times should be.

Emergency alarm processing has some exceptions based on call types, but generally 80 per cent of emergency alarm processing time should be completed within 60 seconds. To achieve this goal, communications centres look towards technology.

But technology has malfunctions, glitches and sometimes people make errors when using it.


What malfunction or glitch would be considered preventable? What can you do to anticipate these problems and prepare for them before they occur?

Computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems use maps. How accurate and up-to-date is your map information?

Delays can occur during the call-taking process. Callers will use common names for a street and not the posted street name. They will report incidents on streets that are considered private roadways. Unfortunately, there are streets that extend from one municipality to another and have the same house numbers.

Do you have up-to-date policies, standard operating guidelines and training on call-taking?  

Can you demonstrate regular, up-to-date training takes place for call taking?

Did the call-taker make prompt and adequate attempts to get complete addressing, including the city?

If a specific address will not verify in your CAD system, will the call-taker get a general location that can be used to dispatch fire vehicles?

The nature and urgency of a call can also be a liability exposure. Were enough questions asked to adequately determine the type of call put into the CAD system so the correct number and types of fire apparatus are dispatched?

Call-takers are expected to make specific, quick enquiries so the nature of the emergency can be selected in the CAD.

Many times, multiple calls are received about the same event. Call-takers must exercise judgement as to whether a call is from the same event.

The fifth or sixth caller might also have information that would change the nature of the call.

Instructions provided to a caller have also been scrutinized during investigations and inquests.

What a catch-22.

Should everyone evacuate or stay and shelter in what may seem like a safe location?

They are blind to the actual circumstances of what is going on. Could the advice given potentially make the situation better or worse? How many times has a call-taker indicated that the fire department is on the way?

Is the caller now relying on the fire department arriving and rescuing them?

The first line of defence is a written policy, standard operating guidelines and directives for front-line staff to use.

You will need to keep them up to date, have a regular review process that is tracked and ensure staff in the communications centre are informed of any changes.

Training is always key. Training should be documented and detailed. Once the initial training of a communicator is done, skills should be updated and maintained. Self-study can work well. There is training that should be done regularly each year.

Technology also needs to be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Technology malfunctions should be tracked so they can be addressed in a timely fashion. Keeping technology updated can be a huge expense. A plan for upgrades and why those decisions were made should be documented.

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 Sue at

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