Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

911 operator wins award for defusing danger

She helped police bag Yuletide Bandit

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A few minutes before 6 p.m. on May 1, 2002, police communications operator Debbie Johnson got the call of her life.

Two police officers had just been fired upon and a woman was being held hostage at gunpoint -- and now the cocaine-crazed gunman was on the phone.

Over the next 40 minutes, Johnson, 43, kept the man on the phone, gently speaking with him, trying to defuse a dangerous situation.

Yesterday, Johnson was presented with a national award for how she dealt with the potentially volatile standoff that ended with the gunman's arrest.

Police said if it wasn't for Johnson's steady handling of the situation early on, it could've escalated to the point where the man would have shot his hostage, police officers and himself.

For her work during the standoff, Johnson was given the 2003 Association of Public Safety Communication Canada public safety communicator award.

"I was just doing my job," the modest Johnson said at a police news conference. "I just wanted to get everyone out OK. We take tough calls all the time. You treat it as one call at a time."

It was only after police arrested the gunman that they realized he was the armoured-truck robber known as the Yuletide Bandit. The man, Michael David Syrnyk, pleaded guilty last December to a string of more than a dozen brazen Christmas season hold-ups, some of which resulted in shootouts with armed security guards during which shoppers dodged bullets. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Police communications centre Insp. Shelley Hart said Johnson's coolness helped ease a potentially deadly situation.

"It was just about as challenging as calls come," Hart said.

After Syrnyk, armed with a sawed-off shotgun and possibly suicidal, talked with Johnson, he asked to speak with a male officer.

The standoff at a third-floor massage parlour in a building at Alexander Avenue and Main Street continued for the next 11 hours. In the end, heavily-armed emergency response unit officers captured Syrnyk after he fell asleep. His female hostage was unharmed.

Johnson admitted yesterday her adrenaline was running as she tried to calm Syrnyk down. When an exhausted Johnson handed the phone to a police negotiator, she was told to go home and be with her family, just two hours into her 10-hour shift.

The unassuming woman doesn't consider herself a hero, although after her conversation with Syrnyk she was told by another call-taker, 'Tonight, you probably saved a lot of lives.'

Hart also said Johnson's award is good for morale not only in the police communications centre, but for the entire police department. The service was heavily criticized for its handling of several 911 calls placed by two sisters Feb. 16, 2000. Both sisters were found stabbed to death.

Because of the murders and subsequent reviews, police launched an extensive overhaul of its emergency communication and call priority system. That overhaul is ongoing.

Hart added that police communication operators handle about half a million calls a year, including emergency calls for police, fire and ambulance, non-emergency calls and some dispatch duties.

That call volume is steadily increasing. There were 267,891 calls for police service alone in 2002, up from 263,024 calls in 2001.

The two police officers who were shot at by Syrnyk were also honoured recently.

Const. Daryl Smuttell and Const. Marc Philippot received awards from the Canadian Professional Police Association.

Smuttell was hit by shotgun pellets in his arm and Philippot received minor injuries when he was hit by flying glass from a blasted-out window.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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