Home / Around Canada / ‘Our imaginations take us to places that we probably shouldn’t go’: A 911 dispatcher on the mental toll of a deadly Brampton fire

‘Our imaginations take us to places that we probably shouldn’t go’: A 911 dispatcher on the mental toll of a deadly Brampton fire

Peel Regional Police dispatcher Diane Santos stands outside her Paris, Ont., home Friday.

At 1:58 a.m. on Monday, a call appeared on Diane Santos’s screen: a house fire in Brampton.

The Peel Regional Police communicator quickly dispatched police officers. As more calls came in and first responders arrived, she learned there were people still inside the Conestoga Drive home.

“It was an experience I had never experienced as a dispatcher before,” Santos said, describing how she tried to be the “calm in the chaos” as she followed the transmissions of officers on the ground while needing to respond to other calls. As fire crews pulled people from the blaze, she said she felt hope they’d survive — but they did not.

Dispatchers don’t get to see the response they co-ordinate, Santos said, but they still feel it. “We’re just imagining, and our imaginations take us to places that we probably shouldn’t go,” she said.

Monday’s fire killed father Nazir Ali, his wife, Raven Ali-O’Dea, and their children, 10-year-old Alia, eight-year-old Jayden, and seven-year-old Layla. O’Dea’s mother, Bonnie, was hospitalized in critical condition. A public funeral is planned for Saturday.

Nazir Ali, 28, Raven Alisha Ali-O'Dea, 29, Layla Rose Ali-O’Dea, 6, Jayden Prince Ali-O'Dea, 8, and Alia Marlyn Ali-O'Dea, 10, all died after a fire broke out at their home in Brampton on Monday.

In an interview with the Star, Santos said she’s struggled to process her emotions in the week since responding to the blaze. In this, Santos is not alone, she’s one among dozens of first responders and emergency workers who are dealing with what they’ve seen and heard.

The lingering experience of tragic events like the Brampton fire can be difficult and traumatic for emergency workers, including those who work behind the scenes, said Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist in Toronto who works with police and first responders.

It’s normal to experience a range of thoughts, emotions and symptoms after these experiences, Kamkar said.

“Our public safety personnel, our first responders are often exposed to a series of traumatic events,” she said, adding that she encourages individuals to practise self-care and to seek professional help if symptoms persist.

Santos remembers being in high gear over the four hours after getting that first call. When she finally took a break at 4:30 a.m., she said she walked outside and felt like throwing up. Her voice had choked on air a few times, so some officers checked on her to make sure she was OK — but she could hear the emotion in the officers’ voices, too.

“At the end of the day, we’re all in a job that’s all about service, and we provide that service to the best of our abilities,” Santos said. “We’re humans, though.”

In an emailed statement, Peel Regional Police spokesperson Jennifer Trimble said that the force has made “significant investment” in recent budgets for organizational wellness and mental health for its members.

“Employee wellness is of the highest priority for our organization,” Trimble said. “Our members step into the unknown every single day, dedicated to serving the public and keeping people safe. We need to ensure that we take care of our people so that they can continue to serve our community.”

Outside the Ali-O’Dea family home on Monday, Brampton’s fire chief emphasized how the tragedy was affecting his crews, some of whom had also responded to a blaze where three young children — brothers — were killed earlier this year.

“We’ll make a tremendous focus on making sure they have all the resources available in terms of mental health that they may need, not only today, tomorrow but in the coming days as well,” Bill Boyes said.

He added: “Our hearts are absolutely breaking — to lose three children and two adults.”

The fire is also not the only high-profile case involving children that Santos has been close to in her 20-year career with Peel police; she was on-duty during the 2019 Amber Alert that ended after 11-year-old Riya Rajkumar was found dead.

Despite difficulty sleeping and processing her emotions, Santos said she is grateful for the support of her team as well as from strangers on social media. She sees a professionalregularly, but said she moved up her next appointment.

“You know in your head that you did everything you could within your power and that the outcome would not have changed,” she said. “But your heart doesn’t necessarily catch up to that.”

The funeral for the Ali-O’Dea family is being held Saturday 8:30 a.m. at Jame Masjid in Mississauga, followed by the burial at Brampton Funeral Home & Cemetery at 10:30 a.m. Members of the public are welcome.

With files from The Canadian Press
Maria Iqbal is a 905 Region-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Maria via email: miqbal@torstar.ca

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