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Home > About Us > History > Dispatch History

Ambulance Dispatching 
in Toronto since 1832

In 1832 the local Doctor would contact the “Ambulance Carter” by word-of-mouth or by messenger in order to dispatch the ambulance to attend to a patient or a dead body consumed with cholera. This method for obtaining an ambulance would continue for many years until the development of the telephone in 1874. Toronto’s first telephone directory was printed in 1878.

It was not uncommon for patrolling police who had come across an ill person or accident to also call for an ambulance and doctor to respond to these calls.

In June 1888, the constable on the front desk of the Court St. police station acted as the dispatcher for the police ambulance.

From the 1870s, calls involving infectious patients were dealt with by the attending doctor or Health Board directly to a contracted ambulance service run by undertaker Michael McCabe.

Michael McCabe operated his infectious ambulance service until 1889 when the city Department of Public Health started their own ambulance service to handle infectious calls only.

The driver of this unit would have a telephone installed at his residence in order to receive notification of these calls.

Records indicate that in 1895, the city paid Bell Telephone Company a total of $25 to provide 12 months of phone service to Public Health “Ambulance Driver” Frank Hauge’s residence so he could be contacted to respond to the 632 ambulance calls that came in that year.

The phone bill in 1906 remained at $25. for yearly phone service to Mr. Hauge’s residence, however the city finally recognized the importance of a dispatcher and paid Mrs. Frank Hauge $100 for her 12 years of answering telephone calls and dispatching the Public Health Ambulance from her house which had increased to well over a thousand calls per year in 1906.

During the early 1900s, the number of private ambulance companies, continued to increase and each firm was responsible for dispatching their own ambulances.

The practice of dispatching the city ambulances changed in August 1933 when the Toronto Police turned over their ambulance service to the Department of Public Health (DPH). DPH became responsible for both emergency, infectious calls, and the removal of dead bodies (coroner’s calls).

The DPH dispatcher, who was located at a desk on the main floor of the city morgue at 86 Lombard St., would also contact private ambulance services to respond to emergencies if all the DPH ambulances where tied up in calls.

The dispatch desk remained on the first floor until the early 1960s, at which time it was moved to a glassed enclosed office in the rear of the crew room over the garage in the ambulance station on site.

With the installation of police radios in the ambulances in 1947, the department of public health dispatcher would relay call information to the police dispatcher who would in turn dispatch mobile ambulances. The DPH dispatcher could only directly dispatch ambulances that were in station or at hospitals since he did not have direct radio communication. This method continued until December 31, 1966.

The regular day time dispatcher, Sandy Black, was under strict orders that only calls within the old city of Toronto limits would be serviced. Therefore, Mr. Black would go to great lengths to determine whether the call would be serviced by the city service or by the “privates”. An example would be: a pedestrian was struck crossing a street that was within the city boundaries on the east side of the street, while on the west side of the street was let’s say the boundary for the Town of York. Sandy (or his designate on afternoons/nights) had to determine on which side of the road the patient was struck, and then on which side of the street the patient now lay. This could cause a delay of 10 minutes or more before a car was dispatched. Fortunately this occurred only infrequently.

The various private ambulance services operated various dispatching systems and in most cases this consisted of a telephone that was answered by the owner, a staff member or family member, who would write down the information and physically pass it to the responding ambulance crews.

One of Toronto’s larger private ambulance operators, Amalgamated Ambulance operated their dispatch out of the second floor of 4 Cawthra Sq. This consisted of a rotating carousel that could rotate to allow easy access of the call information for the two dispatchers.

On January 1, 1967 the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto Department of Emergency Services (D.E.S) opened up Metro Toronto’s first centralized ambulance dispatch center, located at 2200 Yonge St.

This centre consisted of two dispatchers who would control DES ambulances, plus staff and vehicles of the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), which was part of D.E.S. This was the first step in creating a single ambulance dispatch center for the Metropolitan Toronto area. The call volume for the first year of this new dispatch center was 45,000 calls. Note: the EMO was responsible for maintaining a disaster response network, a heavy rescue service, disaster planning and training to deal with disasters.

Midway through 1968 the Province of Ontario assumed funding of all ambulance services, and as a result the Department of Emergency Services, Communication Centre was given full responsibility for dispatching control of all Metro area ambulances, both public and private. On July 1, 1968 the control centre moved to a new location on the fifth floor of the TTC Building at 1900 Yonge St. This larger facility was needed to handle the increasing call volume as a result of control over private ambulance dispatching.

The call volume for 1969 had increased to 102,270 calls.

This control centre had four communication consoles manned by 3 dispatchers and a supervisor. Each console had 120 direct phones lines to police, fire, hospitals, coroner’s office, TTC, Canadian Forces, all ambulance stations, airports, swimming pools, etc. The control centre, was also responsible for the movement and control of all provincial ambulances coming into the region.

The department also operated a backup control centre located at Yonge St. and Empress Ave. in North York, plus there was a backup command centre located in Aurora in the event of a disaster in the Toronto area.

The 1900 Yonge St. Communications Centre underwent numerous alterations and upgrades over the years.

The city was divided into 3 areas. “Five Desk” controlled the old City of Toronto area, “4 Desk” controlled Scarborough and North York to Yonge St., and “6 Desk” controlled Etobicoke and North York to Yonge St.

With the 1975 amalgamation of all ambulance services, the city was divided into the 4 dispatch areas we presently utilize. The staff of 21 communicators insured that the residents of Metro Toronto received prompt emergency care. With the opening of the new communications centre and ambulance headquarters at 4330 Dufferin St. in early 1981, the dispatch facility at 1900 Yonge St. was closed down.

The new control centre at 4330 Dufferin St. consisted of four dispatch desks and a track that carried dispatch forms from six call receiving desks. There was also a supervisor’s desk, a desk to control future ALS vehicles, and a large room off the main dispatch area to handle major incidents.

This centre also introduced a number of new radio channels which gave each quadrant its own radio frequency. An investment of $2.2 million also permitted the introduction of the computer-aided dispatch system which eliminated reliance on a paper-based system.

Along with the introduction of computer-assisted dispatch came the installation of a “Modat” in each ambulance which permitted crews to report their status electronically.

In the mid 1990s, the communications centre underwent a major renovation. In order to facilitate this construction, the communication centre was relocated to the basement of headquarters, where dispatching remained until the current communication centre re-opened.

The present communication centre is on the verge of a radical change from what we have had in place since the 1970s. We have graduated from a system of dispatching ambulances by word of mouth in 1832, to Mrs. Hauge dispatching her husband on infectious calls in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

DPH dispatchers Sandy Black and Jack Page, Mary Elizabeth Cairns of Cairns Brothers Ambulance, the family of Len Klinck of Klinck Ambulance, the Lock Brother’s, Bill Gordon of Amalgamated, the family and staff members of various funeral home based Services all were the pioneers of what has evolved into a world class communications centre , staffed by 108 EMD’s dispatching over 259,000 calls a year.

Computers have allowed us to relay information in a split second. No longer do you need to flip through the pages of a telephone book in an emergency looking for the nearest ambulance service to call.

Today’s Emergency Medical Dispatchers have evolved into a highly trained, specialized profession who can also give life saving advice to a frantic caller.

November 8, 2006

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