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At the Other End of the Radio: A Communicator's Perspective

Posted on Friday April 16, 2021

The following story was written by veteran York Regional Police Communicator Leigh Bonnis, who dispatched officers in Richmond Hill when one of their colleagues was attacked on March 27, 2020.

It is a typical Friday afternoon in March. #2 District is steady. I’m excited about being off early and thinking about enjoying pizza dinner with my family in a few short hours. As I take a bite out of a granola bar, I hear a scream over the radio: “Get on the ground!” I swallow the granola bar without chewing.

Immediately, I identify the radio on the map. It is call sign DP20. Seconds later, he calls and there is an obvious scuffle occurring in the background. I confirm to my supervisor that I have a 10-33 — an officer in need of assistance. I call him back. No response. His GPS hasn’t moved.

From the silence, his yell emerges: “Another unit, hurry up.” I check the map and send 2241 and 2251, the closest units. I have so many questions. How many suspects are there? Is he injured? Is he inside or outside? On the map, the backup units move to his position incredibly slowly, though I know that in reality, they’re moving as fast as they can. I call for radio silence and advise the units to attend in front of 9471 Yonge St. I create a call in the system and remap him when someone yells across the room: “He’s at the Hillcrest Mall.” The call goes in and more units are assigned. I tell my supervisor to open up his radio mic so the officer can say anything over the air without having to use the buttons. I tell him he has an open mic, but still, silence. All of the events above take one minute.

The room around me erupts into organized chaos. 9-1-1 calls start coming in. The information is scary and overwhelming. At the mall, someone on top of the officer, hitting him with a baton. Blood, lots of blood, the suspect going for the officer’s gun. Over the air, I voice the details that matter, knowing that everyone is listening. I know my updates are causing more stress to those responding. I voice hoping the suspect knows we are coming in droves. I am silently begging that the officer hears me. My transmissions are short and abrupt. I try to voice methodically and calmly. I stop for a second and rub my hands together, as I realize they are shaking and I cannot type. The silence on the radio is deafening and I know that everyone listening wants more, but I also know every transmission I make takes away his ability to call me. I need to keep the air for him and only him. The events above take two minutes.

The first backup officer arrives on scene. A co-worker stands behind me and rubs my back. It startles me and I jump. I am so invested in the call that the room around me doesn’t exist. A radio call comes in: “Get paramedics rolling immediately. Get paramedics here now.” I realize how bad it is. Paramedics are already en route, but I update them on the severity of the officer’s injuries. An officer advises that they have one in custody. The patrol sergeant tells all responding officers to slow down. We get the update on the officer who was attacked: He’s been struck with a baton and he’s bleeding severely from his head.

It is minute six and there is still so much to do. I respond to messages. I check on units dispatched to other calls. I read and dispatch calls in the queue. I feel for all the officers assigned to other calls that couldn’t race to assist.

Our team in communications is really a family and we take care of one another. One dispatcher has already taken some of my calls and another has offered to help clear my message board. I didn’t need to ask. It is just done.

The call is 10 minutes old and an ambulance arrives on scene. I think about how many officers must want to join him in the ambulance. I wish I could join him in the ambulance. I am lost in my thoughts when I receive a radio request for an escorted run to Sunnybrook. The trauma centre. It must be bad. The run takes 20 minutes, but it feels like a lifetime. When I hear the officer is being taken into the hospital, I air my last transmission to him: “If you can hear us, you’ve got this.” Is this the last time I will speak to him?

After 53 minutes, I am relieved from the desk and take a drink of water for the first time. I’m so thirsty I could drink a lake. My phone rings and it is the officer’s wife, my co-worker and friend. She tells me she is waiting for an officer to pick her up at home. I tell her to keep me updated and that I love her. I drive home, but I don’t recall the drive.

At home, after 128 minutes, I start to browse through more than 40 text, email and Facebook messages from my co-workers in Communications and out on the road. My boys, 13 and 15, immediately recognize that something is off. They both hug me. I order the pizza I was looking forward to, but I don’t eat. I spend my night messaging all those that reached out to me. I am exhausted. It is 1 a.m. and I try to sleep, but I can’t.

At 8:46 a.m. on Saturday, a heartwarming and almost apologetic text pops up on my phone. It’s the injured officer. His words are kind and comforting and we exchange messages for about 10 minutes. We decide to chat later so he can rest. He is alive. He is OK. He is going to make it.

I take a deep breath. It’s my first in 1,000 minutes.