Q&A: Working Behind the Scenes at the Medical Communications Centre

April 11-17 marked National Public Safety Telecommunicators’ Week.

Medical communications officers (MCOs) play a vital role on Eastern Health’s Paramedicine and Medical Transport (PMT) team. MCOs work behind the scenes at the Medical Communications Centre performing medical emergency dispatching, responding to 911 calls, and more.

To recognize the week and to highlight this important work, we checked in with two medical communications officers, Bradley and Alisha Hookey. When Alisha joined the PMT team in 2020, she was welcomed by a dedicated team of MCOs, including her father Bradley. Read the Q&A below to learn more about their roles, how they became interested in their careers and what makes them proud of the work they do at Eastern Health.

Q: How long have you been at Eastern Health? How long have you been in your current role?
Bradley: I started with Eastern Health April 2012 as a road primary care paramedic and became interested in dispatching a couple of years later (November 2014). I began fulltime dispatch in November 2016.
Alisha: I started with Eastern Health in June 2020 for training to become an MCO; my first shift in the role was July 13, 2020.

Medical Communication Officers Bradley and Alisha pictured here at the Medical Communications Centre.

Medical communication officers Bradley and Alisha pictured here at the Medical Communications Centre.

Q: Why were you interested in a career in health care and/or in your current role?
Bradley: I always had an interest in emergency response. My career began in May of 1997 when a job opening became available with a private ambulance operator. I continued to pursue additional training and, in September 1997, successfully completed the 12-week program requirement to become part of the first class of graduates to be classified as a paramedic in the province (previous classifications were known as an EMT, emergency medical technician). From there, training and upgrades continued over the years to maintain status and transition to what is now known as primary care paramedic. After moving to the metro region, I was successful in achieving employment with Eastern Health, and continued to upgrade my career.
Alisha: Since I was a child, I was interested in a career in health care, probably because that’s the role I watched my father do since I was born. It didn’t matter to me what part of health care I was in, as long as I was helping someone in need.

Q: What is the role of a Medical Communications Officer (MCO)?
A MCO works with accountability to ensure coordination and balanced ambulance coverage to all communities within the designated coverage area. The MCO provides rapid response to requests for routine, emergency, and non-emergent ambulance service, as well as coordinates the Flight Team and the Provincial Air Ambulance program.
In addition, a MCO answers phone calls and collects data for requests for routine ambulance service, provides first response for emergency ambulance service, and coordinates and dispatches ambulances in the service area.

Q: Why did you choose a career in the Medical Communications field?
Bradley: While working as a road ambulance paramedic with Eastern Health, I began exploring different options where I could learn new and different things while still working as a medic. This is when I became interested in dispatching.
Alisha: I chose a career in the medical communications field because I wanted to be the first sense of hope for someone in need. The opportunity arose in January 2020 for me to complete the emergency medical dispatch course to become an MCO and I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to follow the career path I always wanted to be in.

Alisha at a workstation at Eastern Health’s Medical Communications Centre.

Alisha at a workstation at Eastern Health’s Medical Communications Centre.

Q: What does your day-to-day work look like?
Bradley: One word comes to mind here: multi-tasking! You could give CPR instructions, book a routine transfer, dispatch an ambulance to a car accident, or prepare to transport a patient from a hospital to be flown to St. John’s for further medical treatment. The daily tasks can sometimes seem overwhelming, but when we work as a team like we do in the Medical Communication Centre, these tasks or challenges are conquered with ease.
Alisha: This line of work varies daily as it is a 24/7 service. At the start of the shift, you take over the workstation you’re assigned and receive a report from your co-worker about important information or occurrences that are ongoing or have happened throughout the shift. This gives you the ability to start the shift with a sense of what is happening and to be prepared to help coworkers, as needed.

Q: What do you like most about your job?
Bradley: When you answer a 911 call and a caller is in distress, being able to reassure them that help is on the way and that you are there to assist them (for example, by providing them with CPR instructions or giving them direction on what to do next). It’s rewarding when a caller has a feeling of relief that you helped them and say a simple say thank you at the end of the call. Knowing that you helped at end of the day is a reward in itself.
Alisha: The thing I like most about my job is having the ability to help someone in an emergency situation. There are not many careers that lead you to provide emergency CPR or first aid over the phone to a caller. As a MCO, we become the stable part of that conversation. We tell the caller what to do to help their loved one in a calm, reassuring way. That has to be my favorite part of those calls, bringing the caller from a level of panic, down to a level of focus. 

Q: Why is the work you do important?
Bradley: Simple – to help others in need! To provide the caller with pre-arrival instructions to help born a baby to even giving callers instruction on how to control bleeding if needed. The list is endless, but to sum it up, without the type of work that we do as MCOs, people could possibly have a different outcome. Just simply calling 911 to get the HELP that is needed, is all that people sometimes feel is required, but when you assist the caller with providing help for their loved one or even for a total stranger, it gives the caller a better feeling of relief!
Alisha: The work is important because it can save a life. Being able to provide instructions over the phone, dispatching an ambulance to the scene, and providing comfort to callers are all part of being an MCO. When you pick up the phone, you are the first sense of hope for that caller who is desperately in need.

Q: What has been the highlight or what have been the highlights of your career to date?
Bradley: Throughout my career, I have had many memorable experiences as a paramedic but having the ability to work right beside my daughter is a highlight! Who wouldn’t want to have the ability to do such a thing!
Alisha: In the short time I have been here, not a lot has happened for me to have a highlight in my career, but just being accepted to work as an MCO alongside my father has been a highlight enough in my eyes. Growing up I’ve watched him as a paramedic and was always proud of the work he did. Now I get to live his life in hopes to make him proud along with others who surround me.

Bradley at a workstation at Eastern Health’s Medical Communications Centre.

Bradley at a workstation at Eastern Health’s Medical Communications Centre.

Q:  What makes you proud about the work you do at Eastern Health?
Bradley: Knowing that you helped someone at the end of the day.
Alisha: Being proud of the work you do comes from appreciation, either from clients or management. It is a big deal to be recognized for the work you do and the extra steps you take to get there; it is a good feeling to hear from your manager you are doing phenomenal and to keep up the great work. The other side comes from our callers when they thank you for helping them over the phone and/or they thank you for sending an ambulance; it warms a part of your heart that nothing else can. A sense of appreciation can make anyone feel proud. 

Q:  What training and/or education programs are required for your job?
Alisha: To become a medical communications officer, you need to complete the Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD) course through the International Academy of Emergency Medical Dispatch (IAEMD), in which you have to recertify every two years by completing Continuing Dispatch Education (CDEs) hours through the academy and write an exam. You will need certification of Health Care Provider (HCP) CPR and Medical Terminology through a recognized college. Upon hire at Eastern Health, you complete in-class training to understand the systems and how to use them, understand the roles of each work station and what your responsibilities are, and then you are given shifts to work alongside a preceptor.

Q: Do you have any advice to share with anyone considering a career in your field?
Bradley: Just be yourself and always strive to do better because at the end of the day as a MCO, when you help someone, that is rewarding enough!
Alisha: To anyone considering a career as an MCO, my advice to you would be to have a clear mind, an open heart, and strong multitasking skills. Your mind needs to be clear when you walk through the doors at the beginning of your shift because you don’t know what encounters you may have that day. If your mind is clear, you can be focused and ready to take on any tasks that come your way. Your heart always needs to be open so you may offer comfort and support for those who call in emergency situations or for those who work alongside you when they face unpredictable situations. As for multitasking skills, some days you will be answering multiple calls, inputting information, being asked questions by coworkers, answering radio transmissions, and so much more! Don’t let the thought of it being a busy career push you in another direction, this career is very rewarding in many ways!  ■

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