Police communications - an amazing array of equipment with 66 operators serving 24/7 to keep the flow of critical information constant.

News 100 blueBy Pepper Parr

August 17th, 2016


Part 1 of a two part series.

When you pick up the phone and dial 911 – or you call the police station – few people realize just how many wheels begin to turn.

It all gets to the Halton Regional Police Service communications department run by Staff Sergent Dave Cross – who is very quick to tell you that he has an office with a window and ensures the place runs smoothly but adds: “I don’t do a thing on the actual communications work side. I administer the operation and ensure that the 66 people who handle those telephone calls are trained, supported and appreciated.”

They are certainly well trained. Cross explains that everyone is cross trained in everything. This is a 24 x 7 operation. It is always up.
The communications people are tied in very tightly to the Bell system’s 911 call service which is immensely complex.

Supervisors work station

Shift supervisor’s work station – notice the three difference mic on the desk top – can you count the number of screens?

Communications at the HRPS is broken into two parts; those people who handle the incoming calls. Every call to the police comes into the third floor operation at the police headquarters in Oakville. The lights are always dim with the operators, mostly woman, glued to the three, sometimes five, very large computer monitors in front of them and a telephone set with more buttons that you can even imagine.

There are usually two different mouse’s at the ready.

There is very little idle chatter.

On the incoming side the calls that come in are distributed to the first available operator. There are two kinds of calls – a regular telephone call and a 911 call.

Zee map

The operators can pull up maps fr any part of the Region and zoom in to whatever they want – all at the click of the mouse.

A large television screen in a spot on one of the walls where all of the four to six incoming call operators can see it at a glance, tells them how many calls there are in the waiting que. When the board changes to blue they know that a 911 call is waiting.

Operators will put a regular telephone call on hold – they are pretty abrupt at putting a caller on hold and say to the 911 caller – “Do you want the police, fire department or ambulance.”

The moment they know which, they transfer the call. If it is an ambulance call it goes to the Emergency Measures people and often gets passed along immediately to the police detachment as well.

“Sometimes” said Zee, the operator I sat in with for a stretch “a police cruiser is needed to help clear the roadway for the ambulance.”

While sitting in with Zee things were pretty relaxed – then a call from Fearman’s hog processing plant in Burlington about a protestor who had gotten into the property and was pretty close to the hog chute; they wanted her removed from the property.

Zee was talking to both the person from the hog plant and the police cruiser that was on the way.

A call came in a little later about a house in Oakville where the door was thought to be open. When Zee brings up a screen showing all the police incidents in the area she notices that there had been three breaks in in the area. She passes the call along to a police cruiser and then the call gets transferred to the dispatch side of the communications operation

I will come back to the Dispatch people – they do a decidedly different job.

Zee has directed one cruiser on the way to the open house door scene and is in the process of getting a back up car in place as well.
While directing the first police car she gets a call from the police officer asking if she can send someone else to the open house door call and asks if she would run the plates from a car the police officer spotted and was just a little suspicious about. Zee taps a couple of keys and reads out the name of the owner of the car. The police officer asks her to run the name of the owner – a few more key get tapped and Zee is able to tell the police officer that the driver’s name has been has been queried by police in London and a few other surrounding areas. That’s enough for the police officer to know that his suspicions were right and he pulls the driver over.

The people in the communications division have an amazing array of information sources at their fingertips. They can be in touch with other local police forces – they can be in touch with any police service in the province.

Screen upon screen of information is a fingertip away – and their fingers skip across their keyboard in a flash.

Dispatch - not much daylight

The information available to the operator is almost unlimited – and the speed at which they can access that information is close to stunning.

Calls from cell phone are a little harder to work with explained Zee. However, when there is a call from a cell phone she is able to flick to a screen that will show her which cell tower the call came from is located and then see a circle around the cell tower and tells me that “the call came from within that circumference”.

All this information comes up in an instant.

A little later there was a call from a person with an accent that was difficult to understand – but the words Old English kept being heard. Zee goes to the map and keys in the words – and up comes a street name – she has begun to narrow down the location of the caller.

Another operator hearing part of the conversation pips up and adds some information she had on the caller.
When Dave Cross said these people were cross trained – he wasn’t kidding.

An operator will work at a station for a couple of hours and then shift supervisor Terry will switch them around. No one stay at a particular station for a long time – they get moved around.

I sat in with Zee on the incoming call side and with Nicole and Sam on the Dispatch side.

Terry, the supervisor is a woman with one of those voices that lets you know she has a firm grip on the conversation; you know she is going to guide every word of it. That sense that there is someone really in charge but not bossy in charge becomes very clear.

Incoming - clustered

Data on screens and telephone sets with instant links – note the two telephone sets.

Calls on the incoming side involve a lot of what get described as “domestic matters” which can be pretty hum drum but have the capacity to escalate very quickly; the operators listen very keenly to not only the words but the tone. I could almost hear Zee tuning into one callers breathing.

There was a 15 year old calling from Belleville who wanted the Halton police to call her Mother and advise the Mother that she could not throw the daughters possessions out on the street.

It took Zee seconds to realize that she was working with a distraught teenager and needed to work with the Belleville police to ensure they were fully aware of the matter and then with the Burlington detachment to bring them into the picture.

A call from a resident at a community home who said he was told he had to call in and cancel a complaint he had made earlier had Zee looking a little askance at the phone – she asked if she could speak to the person who had instructed him to cancel the call and got passed along to care giver who explained the background.

Police station - new

The new police headquarters – communications will be on the top floor – is scheduled to open July of 2017.

The operators are trained to listen with almost a third ear. They don’t miss much. The quality of the work done by the people I listened to was a lot better than what you hear on some news reports where callers are over excited and very emotional.

Zee was always able to keep the conversation flowing and draw additional information out of a caller – all the while keeping things calm and under control.

The call board goes blue and the number 1 pops up –a 911 call was coming in.

Zee’s body stiffens a bit and she is suddenly all business – her hand goes up telling me not to talk:

“Police, fire department or ambulance – how do you want me to direct this call” she says in a confident voice – she gets some detail and the call gets passed over to the Dispatcher from Oakville and Zee falls back to a supporting role.

What the people on the Dispatch side is covered in our next report to you.


Part 2 – Dispatching police officers.

Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.