How a new program changed 911 calls on P.E.I.

Island 911 dispatchers say a program introduced in 2017 has completely changed the way they do their job and it's allowed them to help people in medical emergencies before an ambulance arrives.

The medical priority dispatch system prompts dispatchers to ask specific questions during a call that helps them collect important information from the scene of medical emergencies.

It also allows dispatchers to give advice over the phone so people can begin hands-on treatment.

Immediate help

Medacom Atlantic operations manager Amanda Landry said since the program was introduced in 2017, dispatchers have guided callers through scenarios like chest pain, allergic reactions, childbirth and cardiac arrests over the phone.

"Pre-August 2017, if you called to identify someone was in cardiac arrest, we really couldn't help you. We'd gather a little bit of information and basically tell you 'call us back if anything changes,'" Landry said. 

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Landry said now dispatchers are often on the phone with the caller until paramedics arrive on scene. Dispatchers are also able to identify the problem and give the necessary help within a minute of picking up the call.

"It changes everything. Call-takers are the first first-responders so to have the ability to start helping people right from the moment that 911 call is received makes a huge difference," she said.

"We're basically reaching out and holding these callers' hands and giving them some guidance."

'A more complete picture'

Landry also said while callers are providing answers to the prompted questions, paramedics are being immediately updated with the information.

"They're getting a more complete picture before pulling up to the house."

Rebecca Bellfontaine has been a 911 dispatcher with Island EMS for seven years and said the new system has allowed her to be more connected to people in distress.

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"I think it just gives the caller reassurance, the patient and it also gives us a sense of actually helping instead of just saying 'help is on the way,'" she said.

Bellfontaine said that learning the protocol system was an adjustment for many dispatchers who have been doing the job for many years. It's also been a challenge navigating more detail from callers.

"It's difficult and we're only as good as the information the caller can give us, so if someone's not directly on scene or they're not sure of the information, we can only go by what they give us, so mistakes happen."

But Bellfontaine said having the system in place has greatly improved the quality of phone calls with people in distress.

Internationally recognized

It was only a year and a half ago the protocol system was introduced but Landry said her team has worked to become an accredited centre for meeting international standards using the program.

With accreditation, Island EMS has to adhere to strict standards during calls to maintain that status. A number of calls are audited and graded and that information gets sent to the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

Landry said her team has been so successful that they are being recognized as a centre of excellence next month at a conference in Washington, D.C.

"To become accredited in a year and a half, that is top five fastest agencies in the world," she said.

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