“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.
Nobody calls 911 when they are happy, but it's the first line of first responders when someone is in need.
“You have to remain calm and try to control the situation and you have to remember that the person that is calling you, what they are reporting, it is an emergency,” says Jen Labelle, a Dispatcher with the Ontario Provincial Police.
“Sometimes you do get calls for ridiculous reasons, a neighbour is shoveling snow too far onto another neighbour's driveway, but we have to remember that those people calling view their situation as an emergency.”
Labelle has been working at the OPP Communications Centre in North Bay for the last decade and spent three years previously at the Comms Centre in Smith Falls. She says, “You do see a lot of trauma in this job.”
“There are two roles with the communications centre; a call taker and a dispatcher.
When you first get hired on, you’re hired as a call taker and the goal is to get as much pertinent information as possible so that the officers can respond. When you are an officer and you’re at a scene, you are concentrating on what’s happening right then and there. In the Comms Centre though, you could be taking a call about a serious accident and once you have dispatched officers to the scene, the very next call could be something that is equally as serious in a completely different part of the region.
"So there is no break, there is no grieving, there is none of that, you just have to take that next call and it does take a very special person to be able to do that. To be able to take all those calls and then not bring it home at the end of the day.”
Labelle says the OPP have recognized the importance of the work from those within the Comms Centre and she says they are very good about their wellness toward the employees.
“They realize that communicators are front line, just as much as the officers are and that we need those same services and levels of support and I personally have taken advantage of some of those services, especially after a really brutal call.”
Labelle says after working as the call taker, the next position up is a dispatcher and that’s when the coordination really comes together to solving that emergency.
“You are almost orchestrating the response. If they need an ambulance, you are the one making sure that an ambulance is out there and knows where they are going. If there’s a call that involves a workplace accident, you have to get on the phone with the Ministry of Labour. There is so much coordination, not just with the OPP but also with everybody around you.
"The number one thing as a dispatcher is making sure that those officers go home to their families at night. There is a lot of pressure with this job.
"The other part that is difficult for a communicator is that there is no conclusion at the end of your calls. Unless there is a major call and there was a really big investigation, you don’t really get that closure. There are always one or two calls that will stay with you forever, where you wonder what happened to the person. When you deal with literally thousands of calls every day, you just have to have that mentality of moving on to the next one and trying to be there for that person that needs your help in that moment.”
She says the work that goes on inside the Communications Centre is almost like watching a ballet being performed.
“Everybody knows their positions, everyone knows what they need to do and there is no personal bias in it, everyone just works together to achieve that common goal. When someone is on a boat and stranded and we’re working to try and get them help and they end up being saved, the emotion in the comms centre is felt by everybody. It can be stressful, it can be fun, but it is a good job.”
And it might have been a job Labelle was always destined for. Her father was in law enforcement and her brother is also on the job. Labelle says initially, it wasn’t a path she was going to pursue.
“I went to school for political science, I was thinking of going into law. Nobody grows up saying they want to be a 911 dispatcher, but it was actually one of those instances where during a ‘bring your kid to work day’ that I got to see the comms centre. Plus, we all watched that William Shatner show ‘Rescue 911’ and that gave us that glimpse into that world, that someone was there on the other end of the line. We always knew there was a voice on the phone, but I don’t know how many people truly understood what a comms centre was.”
Labelle was managing the Silver City movie theatre in Sudbury after she graduated and says she wanted a different challenge and so she took a leap and joined the OPP in Smith Falls, outside of Ottawa.
"There are five centres across the province; London, Smith Falls, Orillia, North Bay and Thunder Bay, and knowing the geography of your region can certainly help if this is a line of work you might be interested in," Labelle says, “It’s a huge area that we cover. From North Bay, we cover the entire James Bay coast, all the way up to Attawapiskat, to the southeast in Mattawa, to the southwest in Parry Sound, to the northwest in White River. That includes roadways, waterways, all the trails.”
Figuring out exactly where someone is can be a task that gets easier within the next few years as Labelle says they are overhauling the 911 system with something they call Next Generation 911.
“That is going to move everything to a digital and Internet-Protocol (IP)-based system from an analog system. It will really help in a lot of situations. For instance, I had a call where someone was in Kapuskasing, but her daughter was in Calgary and needed police out there. So in the current system we have, we would have to figure out the number for Calgary and transfer them over there. It’s not seamless, there’s a lot of work involved in making that happen, and with an emergency, time is of the essence. With this new system, we would all be connected across the country. The United States of America are overhauling their system as well to get on this same platform. It’s going to improve the service overall.”
She says cell phone technology has really advanced this step for the 911 system.
“Thirty years ago, everyone had a landline, and so if you called 911 from a residence, we knew exactly where that home was, we could see where that call was coming from. Now, with cell phones, you’re getting GPS coordinates and while it can be very accurate if you are somewhere like downtown Toronto, if you are in the middle of the bush somewhere up north, those coordinates might not be as accurate. The technology is improving so that we can be more accurate. As much as changing the entire 911 system is going to be daunting, we’re excited for this technology that will help us, help people quicker. With NG911, everything will be faster more seamless.”
Labelle says they are calling on people to consider this as a career choice, especially those who are bilingual.
“I’m now working as a French Language Services Coordinator and Recruiter. My focus is on trying to promote French language across the communications centre because every communications centre has pockets of communities that are Francophone. It’s not a requirement to be bilingual, but it is definitely an asset to be able to speak both French and English and we are looking for bilingual applicants right now. It doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to get that job first, but we do need those people in these positions. We are very lucky to be in North Bay and have the ability to pick people from those pockets of communities around us that might already have that skill, whereas those centers in Orillia or London might not have the same depth of bilingual speakers within their area.”
She says the OPP Communications Centre in North Bay is a hidden gem for employment in the community.
“Most people don’t even know that the OPP comms centre is in North Bay. We don’t really advertise our location, and we are one of the larger employers within North Bay, we have over 100 people who work there,” she says.
“You also don’t need any specialized pre-requisite or training to do this job and it is a government job. We’re looking for people who have life experience and people who can relate to the people who are calling, its not really stuff that you’re going to find in a book.”
Labelle says a silver lining over the last year is that they have also shifted their interviewing process to be completely virtual.
“How it used to work is, you fill out an application package online and because of COVID protocols, you don’t step foot into the communications centre until your first day on the job, everything is done at home. That has actually given us the ability to interview more people, more quickly because you’re not having to wait for somebody to make arrangements to come down to North Bay to do the in-person test. Everything is done virtually now. It’s been very successful so far.”
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