Hands-on certificate program prepares emergency communications officers

February 19, 2021 | Health, Society
“I have eight months to help you learn to think like an emergency communications operator. You have the rest of your career to master that skill.”

When Doug Johnson meets a new group of students, that’s what he tells them. As a faculty member in MacEwan University’s Emergency Communications and Response program, his job is to teach students the skills they need for this important line of work.

Emergency communications officers are the critical connection between people in distress and the professionals who save their lives. Whether they’re working for fire, police, health or other specialized services – such as transit, mall security or school boards – emergency communications officers use their quick thinking, sharp judgment and people skills to take command of difficult situations and send help.

Because of the critical nature and high stakes of this work, emergency workers must be well prepared when they enter the field. That’s where MacEwan’s Emergency Communications and Response program comes in. This certificate program gives students the knowledge and skills they need to start their career with confidence – in under a year.

The program relies heavily on labs, hands-on activities and field placements to help students learn how to answer emergency calls, log critical information and dispatch the appropriate services. Johnson explains that program-specific emergency courses are 50 per cent lecture and 50 per cent applied practice. “This is the type of program that is best learned by hands-on application of the theoretical concepts through experiential learning,” he says.

We pride ourselves on ensuring our lab replicates the real-world environment.
—Doug Johnson

The hands-on approach builds confidence. Chloe, a graduate of the program who now works as an emergency communications officer with Alberta Health Services, found the gradual building of practical skills to be particularly useful. As she learned the basics of taking a call and communicating with callers, Chloe and her classmates initially practiced taking down information by hand before learning how to input the information through Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) software. “The program has an incredible lab that allowed us to simulate a good majority of what the job could be like,” she says.

Johnson says that the program uses standard industry equipment and software, making the transition to the workplace as seamless as possible. “We pride ourselves on ensuring our lab replicates the real-world environment that students will be exposed to,” he says. “We use the same CAD system as Alberta Health Services, Edmonton Police Service, Edmonton Fire Rescue, Alberta Sheriffs and many other major services.”

Learning to take emergency calls is about more than just understanding the call equipment and software. Johnson says students also learn active and passive listening skills. “They learn to hear not only what the caller is saying but also what is not being said,” he explains. Students also learn how to use their voice to control the call. “The call taker needs to understand what the situation is and provide reassurance and direction to the caller,” says Johnson. “Once a caller relationship has been established then specific instructions can be provided.”

Students also listen to real emergency call audio. "That allows the students to be fully aware of what they will be expected to manage in their careers.”

Chloe uses those listening and communication skills in her job. “Every emergency call is different. You have no idea what you’re going to get. Some calls are straightforward while others are a challenge,” she says. “Keeping yourself calm and collected is extremely important in keeping a caller calm. It’s all about having empathy for the person calling you that day because it might be the worst day of their life.”

In addition to learning the technical aspects of the job, students also discuss the lifestyle considerations related to working in emergency communications, including shift work, emotional challenges and critical incident stress management.

It’s a challenging, demanding career that Chloe says is also incredibly rewarding. “I really enjoyed the program and have landed in a career in dispatch that I didn’t know I could love so much,” she says. ”Being able to play a role in possibly saving someone’s life is incredibly rewarding.”

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