It takes a certain temperament to field 911 calls.
“I’ve always been a multitasker, for sure. With probably a little OCD,” admits Erica Nohra — one of the 911 communicators at the Emergency 911 Centre on the fourth floor of Windsor police headquarters.
“I like to stay busy. I probably couldn’t be in a position where I’m not required to do numerous things at once. When I’m in it, I’m in it … It can be addicting. You learn to enjoy it, in a way.”
Laura Sbrocca, one of the centre’s supervisors, says working at the centre can be a rush. “It’s fast-paced, it’s high-adrenaline. (The communicators) like those tough calls. It’s that type of individual who will succeed here. You have to love this kind of work.”
This month, the Windsor Police Service celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Emergency 911 Centre.
As strange as it is to imagine a world without 911, Windsor-Essex didn’t have a three-digit emergency telephone service until 1982.
The city’s first 911 call takers worked out of the basement of the old Windsor police station in City Hall Square, and used a paper card system to track their calls.
Generations later, Windsor’s Emergency 911 Centre is a fully digital civilian-staffed operation, with 30 full-time communicators, 15 part-time communicators, and some of the city’s most robust online communication systems at their fingertips.
“Our new phone system is Solacom. It’s not your standard landline anymore. It’s Voice Over Internet Protocol,” Sbrocca explains.
Laura Smith, the centre’s director with almost 30 years of experience taking 911 calls, says the system has multiple backups and redundancies. “We have a lot of technical resilience here.”
The centre is the city’s primary Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). Calls that require the service of Windsor police officers are dispatched directly from the centre, while calls requiring firefighters or paramedics are routed to the dispatch systems of Windsor Fire and Rescue Services and Essex-Windsor EMS.
But no matter what the nature of the call, the first voice you hear when you dial 911 in Windsor is someone at the centre.
“We are like the first first-responders,” Sbrocca says. “It’s where everything starts. It’s where the response initiates.”
“There are instances where a police officer may come across something. But, for the most part, it all begins with a phone call to us.”
Smith estimates that over the course of a 24-hour period, the centre typically deals with 1,100 calls — about 300 of them relating to emergency situations.
Smith points out that with the omnipresence of cellphones, a single incident can generate multiple calls, and care must be taken to sort them out and distinguish priority.
The centre also receives all calls to the Windsor Police Service non-emergency line. “There’s no receptionist, there’s no switchboard. We get them all,” Sbrocca says.
Juggling so many calls on a daily basis make mental endurance and the ability to multitask essential parts of being a 911 communicator.
Every user terminal at the centre has five to six live computer screens, and staff stare at them for 12-hour shifts.
“You need to be able to answer the phone, listen to the caller, listen to the dispatcher, listen to the supervisor, and type in all this information — simultaneously,” Smith says.
Despite the computer and time-management skills necessary for the job, post-secondary education is not a requirement.
Smith said communicators undergo at least 12 weeks of intensive training combined with in-class study, and also must log several hundred hours of being coached.
“It’s about seven to eight months in total, and we do it all here (at the centre),” Smith says. “We’re accredited by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services… We do all our training in-house.”
Background checks are prerequisites for hires, as is psychological testing.
Communicators on staff are assigned peer support, with monthly check-ins for mental well-being. Debriefings are held after major events or particularly difficult calls.
Staff also have access to an employee assistance program and the Windsor Police Service chaplain.
It’s all meant to ready the communicator to deal with the voices of those in the midst of emergency situations.
“A lot of times, people are calling you on the worst day of their lives,” Smith says. “You need to expect that they might be upset, they might be angry, they might yell at you. But you have to focus on your job and get the information, so that help can be sent right away.”
“It’s a lot. And it takes the right person to do it.”
Back at Nohra’s terminal, the 31-year-old 911 communicator says she’s always had an interest in law enforcement, and she’s fascinated by true crime content.
Nohra says she was once enrolled in the University of Windsor’s criminology program with intentions of becoming a lawyer — but she applied for the Emergency 911 Centre job 10 years ago while she was still in school, and ended up falling in love with the work.
“The job has absolutely changed me. I feel like I’m calmer and more patient,” Nohra reflects. “I almost have a ‘laissez-faire’ outside of work. It makes you realize there are bigger issues in life. It offers more perspective, for sure.”
Having been mentored at the Emergency 911 Centre when she was first hired, Nohra is now in a position to mentor trainees herself, instructing them on “staying adaptable and positive.”
Fellow communicator Mary Beth Fairlie says she applied for the job 11 years ago because she wanted to make a difference in the community, and she has an innate curiosity about calls — despite the stress involved.
“A lot of people say that to me when I tell them what I do. They go, ‘Oh, that must be stressful, that must be tough.’ But it’s so interesting to me. Every call is a little different,” explains the 40-year-old mother of two.
“You learn how to work through (the stress). You hear a lot of horrible things, and you just have to function.”
Andrea McLeod, 46, another communicator, says some staff members at the Emergency 911 Centre feel the word “quiet” is a bit of a jinx.
“Not me, though. Quiet, quiet, quiet. See? I’m not superstitious. Not at all,” she jokes.
But McLeod agrees about taking a certain enjoyment in the job. “You couldn’t work here if you didn’t. You have to have the temperament. It’s not for the faint of heart. And it’s never the same day twice.”
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Neither Nohra nor Fairlie nor McLeod feel they need any community recognition for the efforts of the centre. Although Nohra does hope the general public remembers something about talking to someone via 911: “The questions we ask are always for a reason.”
“On a call, you’ll get someone saying, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ But there’s a reason. We need to know what we need to know. We’re working on getting information so that you can be assisted as soon as possible.”
In a post saluting the 40th anniversary of the Emergency 911 Centre, the Windsor Police Service praised the centre’s staff.
“Our team members do incredible work to keep our community safe, and we couldn’t be prouder of them,” WPS stated.