Communications Operator receives national award

By Sara Faruqi, Toronto Police Service Published: 3:14 p.m. November 5, 2014

When Joanna Jenkins goes to accept the Telecommunicator of the Year Award at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Vancouver today, she will be accepting it on behalf of the entire TPS Communications team.

A woman at a desk wearing a headset and smiling at the camera. She has a computer in front of her.
Joanna Jenkins is the winner of APCO Canada's Telecommunicator of the Year award.

The award recognizes a telecommunicator who ‘handled a critical incident in an exemplary manner that positively affected its outcome’.

“Any one of us could have done the same job I did,” said Jenkins. “I did my job, as any one of 15 of us who could have got that call that day.”

The call Jenkins is referring to is the one for which she is receiving the award – helping a little girl keep calm and making sure her younger siblings in the house were safe after their mother stabbed their father.

“It was the tail-end of the midnight shift, about 20 after six”, recalls Jenkins. A little girl had called, crying, saying she needed an ambulance and there was blood everywhere. As Jenkins tried to understand what was happening, the little girl hung up. But, a few seconds later, the girl picked up the phone and Jenkins had her back on the line. 9-1-1 calls from land lines, if disconnected do not get disconnected on the dispatch side so, if someone picks up the phone again, they will still be connected to call takers, explains Jenkins.

Instead of putting the girl through to ambulance services, Jenkins decided to keep the line open, so both ambulance and police could be on the call. “Something about the way she sounded made me decide to stay on the line,” says Jenkins, who says she didn’t know at that point in the call if a crime had been committed or if it was a medical emergency.

For the next five minutes, the young girl was alternating between being very calm and hysterical, says Jenkins. The communications operator kept the girl on the line, trying to gather what was happening while police and ambulance were on their way. Jenkins figured out there were three younger siblings in the apartment, that the young girl was the eldest and that their father had somehow been injured. 

“It was long way into the call when she said ‘I think mommy killed daddy,’” says Jenkins, estimating it must have been about five minutes till she was able to extract that information. “My stomach dropped,” she remembers.

“It was not the call I thought it was. It certainly changed the questions I asked her next,” says Jenkins, who started inquiring about the safety of everyone in the home. “I asked her ‘are you safe? Where is mommy? Where are your brothers and sisters?’”

Being a mother of two, Jenkins says her ‘mom voice’ came out as she tried to piece things together and keep the young caller calm. “My primary concern was to make sure everyone was safe and I wanted her to know she was doing a good job,” says Jenkins.

“I find that, in the heat of the moment, I am very calm…it is after the call when the adrenaline rush stops that you start thinking about the scene. That’s the emotional part,”

As soon as police and ambulance arrived at the scene, Jenkins had to hang up and take the next call.

“I had a hard time with this one. I thought about her after,” says Jenkins, “I wondered if her mom was in custody, if her dad had survived and about her being the eldest of such young siblings.”

“There is constant adrenaline, constant emotion, but no closure,” says Jenkins, a Communications Operator for 12 years.

She adds that closure is not always necessary. Sometimes you just need one tiny detail about what happened next and that can be enough too. “If it is a particularly traumatic call, little bits of closure might be all we need,” says Jenkins. In this instance, because it bothered her, she did find out about what happened to the girl and her family.

Jenkins says she applied for the job after a neighbour, who was a police officer, told her about it. “It seemed like it was fast-paced, different all the time and, back then, you think every call will be an emergency and you want to help someone,” says Jenkins.

Once you start working, you discover not every call is an emergency, says Jenkins, but she says she still enjoys the job very much. “I find that, in the heat of the moment, I am very calm…it is after the call when the adrenaline rush stops that you start thinking about the scene. That’s the emotional part,” says Jenkins.

On winning the award, the Communications Operator is exceptionally modest “I am part of a team, any of us could get this award,” she says. “We are the silent, unseen voices on the phone. We don’t want to be in the spotlight,” says Jenkins, laughing, adding the award is for all of TPS Communications and not just her.

Christina Headley, Senior Operations Supervisor at Communications, says the entire team is very proud of her. “She is an exceptionally skilled employee,” says Headley, who has been Jenkins’ supervisor since the Communications Operator started her TPS career.

“From the day she arrived here, I recognized she had the attributes to be a successful Communications Operator. She has good instincts, she is sincerely empathetic, a problem-solver with phenomenal communication and people skills and an exceptional multitasker,” beams Headley about Jenkins.

Jenkins will be receiving the Communicator of the Year Award at the APCO Canada Conference in Vancouver tonight, November 5. APCO Canada serves the people who supply, install and operate the Emergency Communications Systems used around Canada from coast to coast.

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