911 turns 30 in Ottawa: From Parliament Hill shooting to OC Transpo crash, operators have...


The caller’s voice sounded muffled over the phone.

Did he have something tied over his mouth? Was he the victim of a robbery?

From her desk inside the 911 emergency call centre at the Elgin Street police station, Carole Lachance could tell the call had come through the switchboard of the Governor General’s residence. Beyond that, she couldn’t identify the man’s location.

She kept him on the line for 30 minutes, though, devising a crude communication system — one “Mmm” for yes, two for no — through which she pried information from him about his circumstances and whereabouts. Police and other responders were dispatched and the RCMP were notified.

The caller, it turned out, was the husband of one of the Governor General’s staffers, who, owing to a recent surgery, had his jaw wired shut. He was bleeding profusely, however, forcing him to continually swallow his own blood so he wouldn’t drown in it.

“When they finally found him,” Lachance recalled, “they got him to the hospital, but I never found out…”

Her recollection of the years-old 911 call is abruptly interrupted as a green light above her desk lights up, indicating an incoming call. Whenever that happens, she has three seconds to answer it. For now, the interview is on hold.


Hundreds of thousands of stories filter their way each year through this large, dimly lit room.

Some are small, almost-inconsequential blips that are forgotten as soon as they play out. Others are higher dramas, involving accidents, misfortune, bad decisions, crimes of greed, guile and passion, mental health issues, medical emergencies and hot-headed breakdowns in civility.

More often than not, the people telling the stories are not having their best days.

Regardless of the outcomes — whether the thief is caught, the stroke victim lives, the drowning woman is rescued, the fire is contained or spreads — the stories often begin with the same six words.

“911 emergency. Fire, police or paramedics?”


On Friday, Ottawa’s 911 service celebrates its 30th anniversary. Carole Lachance is one of five of the centre’s more than 100 employees who have been there since Day 1.

The service, says Dr. Justin Maloney, who was an emergency doctor at The Ottawa Hospital in the early 1980s when he began lobbying for it, was the first step in improving pre-hospital care in Ottawa, and ultimately led to Ottawa’s paramedic services and, eventually, the practice of having defibrillators in public places.


A woman is attended to by paramedics wearing body armour as police respond to the Parliament Hill shooting in 2014. The attack caused a 15-minute surge in calls to the city’s 911 call centre.

Ottawa’s first 911 call came in around 1:30 p.m. on June 22, 1988, shortly before the centre officially opened. But operators were, as they say, standing by, a good thing for Nepean’s Jean Paul Rochon, whose chainsaw had slipped and cut into his arm. An ambulance was dispatched.

Since then, an estimated 7.5 million 911 calls, and even more regular calls, have gone through the centre, which is owned by the city but operated by police. Last year, there were slightly more than a quarter-million 911 calls made in Ottawa — just over 700 each day. Over half of the 911 calls were for police, over a third were for paramedics, and 3.5 per cent for fire. A further six per cent were directed to other services, such as OPP, RCMP and Quebec’s 911.

According to Insp. Jim Elves, who heads the OPS communications centre, the calls are for anything and everything. “They reflect society, really.”

“It’s all natural, and it’s what you would expect. It’s wherever people converge,” he adds. “When are people off work? When is there more chance of stuff happening? So it’s probably in the evenings, probably on weekends. That’s not to say the bad things don’t happen at any time, but on average, I think it’s when more people are just naturally out and about, together.”

So rush-hour tends to be a busy time for 911 calls, and downtown busier during the day than the suburbs. And the summer more than the winter, when people are hot, when they’re close to one another, when their patience is short.

“From May until pretty much the end of October, every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday night is going to be busy, because of the (ByWard) Market. It’s going to be flooded.”

There’s also no telling what events will trigger the most calls. The October 2014 National War Memorial-Parliament Hill shootings caused a surge of 911 calls that lasted about 15 minutes. A random accident on the Queensway, meanwhile, might generate far more calls, as passersby, unaware that others have already called, respond.


Lachance faces five monitors as she takes calls. One shows a large map of the city and where all the active police officers are. Another shows all emergency calls queued up for action. Priority 1 and 2 calls, where someone is hurt or at risk of injury, are in red. Priority 3 calls are in orange. Priority 4 calls are in yellow. Others are green. The priority dictates the response time.

The information Lachance types in from callers is acted on by dispatch operators, who are also aided by operators taking internal calls from officers. Elves describes the operation as “unbelievably organized and choreographed.

“It’s easy to say, ‘That’s their job and that’s what they do,’ but given the stress and the trauma that comes with some of the calls … it’s amazing how they are able to categorize and organize everything — get the maps up to help the officers respond and know where to go, and keep the communication going.

“As a police officer, without them, we couldn’t do our job out there on the street, because we don’t have that eye in the sky — somebody telling us you need to go here and do this, because this is what we know.”



911 call centre operator Carole Lachance worked for almost 24 hours straight during the 2003 blackout.

The stream of calls on a recent weekday afternoon is steady. Some qualify as bona fide emergencies, while others are referred to the regular police number.

An alarm company calls to notify police that one of its properties appears to have an intruder. A woman calls to ask if her son, who was picked up on an outstanding warrant, is being detained. Another woman, eating at a restaurant, shares her concern for a young girl — likely the child of the owners, she says — being “roughly” treated in the kitchen. A man’s wallet and phone are stolen from his car. A woman calls to report what she believes is a drunk driver on Carling Avenue. Periodically, cars collide, thankfully without injuries. A man in his 30s, perhaps enjoying the dulling effects of alcohol too much, is barely fazed by the commercial garage door under which he found himself pinned and from which it took four grown men to extricate him. Someone’s grandmother falls, another’s sister is experiencing pains. A seniors’ home needs an ambulance. A man is trying to cash a stolen cheque. Another burglar alarm goes off.

These are the quotidian calls that reflect the city’s everyday stress. But there are those occasional calls, Lachance says, like the one from the Governor General’s residence, that refuse to go away when the shift ends.

“They don’t haunt me, but they stick with me. I had a lady die on me. One minute you’re talking to them, and then there’s nothing. Then you hear the officer kicking the door in, and they’re telling me that she didn’t make it.

“The calls that stick with you, it’s hit-and-miss and you never know why. There was this one call in the late ‘90s, a crib death. … I was just finishing my late shift and this woman called, and I could not describe the scream. And to this day when I think about it, the hair on the back of my neck …”

The green light goes on again. Another call is coming in.



Carole Lachance has been taking calls at the city’s 911 call centre since the day it began operating 30 years ago.

Lachance says that with each call, operators must brace themselves for the worst and, with luck, dial it back from there. You err on the side of caution, especially when callers may sound more frantic than their situation warrants.

“You have to have hair on your chest,” Lachance says of 911 call-takers. “You have to be strong enough to control a conversation. If someone is screaming and yelling, you may have to scream and yell back, to be a little louder than them. Not always, but sometimes. Other times you just have to sit, and then say, ‘OK, are you ready?’

“And you have to let a lot of stuff roll off your back. I’ve had people go up one side of me and down the other on the phone, and you just have to take it.”

It also requires a professional dedication. Lachance wasn’t at work when the Hill shooting occurred, but went in anyway. She worked almost 24 hours straight during the 2003 blackout, and recalls being the only car on the Queensway when she drove to work at 5:30 a.m. on the morning following the 1998 ice storm.

“If something big is happening, you don’t just leave because your shift is over,” she says.

The job also requires enormous patience, great organization skills and the ability to listen to different things at once — phone calls, radio chatter and whatever else is going on in the room. It’s also a job that’s gotten much busier as Ottawa has grown.

“I remember a time when Ottawa used to roll up at 11 o’clock at night and everything was quiet overnight until rush hour started at 6:30 a.m. Now, we go all night. There’s never a moment to stop …”

The green light comes on.

“911 emergency. Fire, police or paramedics?” Lachance asks.

“Someone’s been bitten by a dog?”