Manager, Public Safety Communications, City of Calgary

New technologies, new operations, new communications strategies, and a brand new facility…that’s what the City of Calgary is putting in place to integrate its three 911 departments – fire, police, and emergency medical services (EMS) – into one.

But according to Susan Garnett, one pre-requisite supersedes all the rest – the creation of a new values-based work culture. “The project’s success hinges on this,” says Garnett, Calgary’s manager of public safety communications.

Calgary’s 911 communications service today has more than 200 employees spread over three departments located in three different areas. Collectively they respond to more than 1.2 million calls a year. In addition, the service also handles non-emergency calls for fire, police and ambulance. One pre-requisite supersedes all the rest – the creation of a new values-based work culture. The project’s success hinges on this.Susan Garnett>Text

Emergency triage

“Today, in Calgary, 911 calls are answered by our fire department,” said Garnett. “The operator determines what resource is required. Police and EMS calls are routed to other locations, while fire calls are transferred within the same room.”

And that, she said, is pretty much the way 911 is handled across Canada and in most U.S. cities today.

While that may be the norm, Garnett believes it is not necessarily the best or most efficient process.

As a case in the point she cited the confusion at the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 – with firefighters running up the stairs of the wrecked towers, while police officers were scrambling down, because they did not have the same information. “The police knew the buildings were coming down, the firefighters didn’t…all because the two groups got their information from different centres.”

Calgary’s integrated Public Safety Communications Centre (PSCC) will ensure situations such as these never occur.

An integration strategy is currently being rolled out.

“We’re a year into the project and around a year from completion,” Garnett said.


Technology integration is one important facet of the strategy.

The city of Calgary has implemented a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to integrate electronic communication among its among police, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS).

To ensure real-time communication and collaboration among its emergency response teams, the City has deployed an Optical Ethernet network supporting Resilient Packet Ring (RPR) technology based on Nortel Networks Optical Metro 3500. An OC-12 ring connects the communications centers of the Calgary police services, fire department, and emergency medical services.

Wireless traffic generated by the emergency response teams in the field is backhauled from five city towers via the optical infrastructure. With significantly improved bandwidth between sites, the optical network ensures the CAD system is accessible by all the three emergency services – anytime and anywhere.

In future, the three core services will be physically centralized in one facility, with dispatch services being provided from a single location.

The three shall become one

While technology and operational integration are important, it’s the blending of three very disparate cultures that poses the greatest challenge, according to Chantelle Alberts, human resources advisor at the city of Calgary.

In Calgary, she said, call centre personnel for the three departments think differently and even dress differently – police call evaluators dress like officers in the field, fire communications staff wear firefighters’ uniforms, while EMS (responders) are professional paramedics and wear paramedics’ uniforms.

The way each group responds to callers, she said, is also very different and reflects a very distinct mindset. “The fire department’s preoccupation is the caller’s safety. With EMS it’s all about asking medical questions so they can help out in patient care…while police respondents are trained to be suspicious. They would want to know who the caller is, why (he or she) is calling, and what information they can provide.”

These three perspectives, Alberts says, are reflected in different processes around operations. “That’s why integration is such a challenge.”

A new cross-training program dubbed ‘Beyond Your Horizons’ is a key factor in accomplishing this integration. “As part of this program, communications staff cross train to one another’s jobs,” said Alberts. “We also do a call operations orientation.”

The HEART of the matter

The conscious and ongoing cultivation of a new values-based culture is at the core of the integration program.

Alberts said all call centre employees would be encouraged to cultivate and manifest the City of Calgary’s HEART values: Be Honest and tell the truth; Pursue Excellence; Be Accountable; Be Responsive, compassionate and fair; Treat others with respect.

The PSCC is considering the introduction of a program to encourage employees to practice these values consistently. (EMS reportedly already runs one such a program. Each time an employee is seen practicing one of the HEART values, he or she gets a commendation card that says: “You’ve been caught living the values!”

Though an extremely difficult and complex process, the integration of the three services is expected to pay off in spades.

Improvement in call processing speed will be one big benefit.

“Today, emergency call processing happens in phases,” said Garnett. Our goal is to have one evaluator process the call and decide on the appropriate resource to be deployed.” The ability to ensure “right resources, get to the right place at the right time,” will undoubtedly be the most important benefit of all.

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