One Emergency Call Changed This Dispatcher’s Life Forever

'To this day, I still struggle.' Hardeep Dhaliwal is an emergency medical dispatcher who got PTSD on the job.

CBC Docs POV, After the Sirens looks at the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among paramedics.  On-scene paramedics aren’t the only emergency responders who suffer that way, and you don't have to witness a traumatic scene firsthand to be impacted by it. Emergency medical dispatchers are as vulnerable to PTSD due to what they hear and imagine.

Hardeep Dhaliwal is a dispatch supervisor whose life was changed by one phone call.  It was one of tens of thousands of calls he has received in a 37-year career with the B.C. Ambulance Service in Kamloops, British Columbia.

When people ask him how he could be affected by an event that he wasn’t even physically present at, he has a simple explanation. To be good at his job, he has to visualize the scene in his head, so that he can know how to direct the paramedics when they get there. What he imagines can be as horrific as anything anyone could see in person.

It was on Good Friday in 1996 that Dhaliwal received a call for help from the scene of one of the biggest mass murders in Canadian history. 

“Even watching the news nowadays, whenever I hear about mass shootings and stuff like that, it affects me. So I try not to watch the news much anymore."

The first paramedics to arrive on scene were Don Devine, one of the subjects in After The Sirens, and his partner. They were both friends of Hardeep’s. When they first went inside the house where the shootings had taken place, Hardeep couldn’t reach them. For a while he thought maybe they had been shot, further contributing to his traumatic injury from the event.

When asked why he still works at a job where he sustained such an injury, Hardeep says he still loves the work itself.

“For a lot of people when they call for an ambulance, that may be the first time they've ever called for an ambulance in their life, and it's my job to reassure them that help is coming. We're going to send help. I carried on with my job because I love helping people. And it's the best place I can think of to help people."