Image: Dakota Douglas, Crisis Team Lead, working remotely from home.

As the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic became undeniable in March, the Distress Centre leadership team and Board had a decision to make. For the safety and health of our volunteers and staff, we decided to completely close our office on March 17th, 2020.

Behind the scenes, staff, with the support of LAN Solutions and Altitude Communications, worked around the clock to set our entire staff up for remote work in under a week. This remote work includes answering crisis and 211 contacts 24/7 and holding counselling sessions by phone.

We know how vital our services are to Calgarians right now.

“We’re a crisis centre while our entire city is experiencing a global crisis,” said Dakota Douglas, Crisis Team Lead at Distress Centre. “And we have some of the best training and experience on handling crisis situations and helping people from a distance.”

Our contact centre is empty right now, but we are still here for Calgarians during this incredibly difficult time.

Our currently empty contact centre. All contacts are being answered from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does a remote 24 hour contact centre look like?

Distress Centre staff are responding to contacts from home. To do this, they need to have the appropriate technology, which includes a headset and a computer that is able to download and run the software that we use to respond to local and national contacts, as Distress Centre also answers calls from Canada Suicide Prevention Service – the national suicide line.

They also need to have a space in their home where confidentiality is assured, and they won’t be overheard by family members, roommates or neighbours.

A staff member will work a crisis, 211 or online services shift. In a day, we generally have 25 shifts to cover over 24 hours.

Supervision and support

At Distress Centre, we pride ourselves on providing a supportive environment for our volunteers and staff. The Contact Centre Coordinator (CCC) oversees the volunteers and staff who are answering crisis contacts and provide support and guidance on high risk calls, as well as feedback and debriefs after calls. After a tough call, the volunteer or staff will debrief with the Contact Centre CCC on shift.

Remotely, this same support is still present, but it is given by phone.

In the contact centre, staff and volunteers would be able to chat and check in with each other when they aren’t on a call. Remotely, they chat in a group IM instead to stay connected with each other.

One of the computers at our office that is being used remotely.

Outside of working hours, to make up for the lack of in-person support and socialization, supervisors have introduced virtual connection opportunities. Once or twice a week, staff can join a video chat to talk about their lives, how they’re doing and other non-work related subjects.

This work can be challenging and as this pandemic has unfolded, we’ve seen an increase in demand for 211 services, more complex calls and an increase in suicide-related contacts, so these connection opportunities are incredibly important.


Security remains of the utmost importance while our office is remote. Staff and volunteers respond to contacts using secure, encrypted systems for both online and phone work. These are the exact same systems and platforms that are utilized in our physical contact centre. This ensures that all technology systems meet the same level of standards and requirements that we expect of on premises systems.

Staff and volunteers are remotely provided with ongoing technology support.

What about volunteers?

Unfortunately, the speed with which we went remote did not allow us to involve volunteers immediately, and for the first few weeks of remote work, only staff were responding to all contacts.

We’re slowly setting up volunteers and allowing them to take on shifts, once we ensure they meet the same security and technology requirements that we have of staff. This has had a significant financial impact on Distress Centre.

We plan to cautiously continue to expand our remote volunteer pool.

We also had to postpone our March training group mid-way through to follow physical distancing measures and move to remote operations. We are exploring how to best move volunteer training online so we can recruit and train more volunteers to build up our capacity to respond to the anticipated demand.

We’re proud of our staff and the work they’ve done to bring our entire office remote and then maintain our 24/7 support to the community when Calgary needs it most. We look forward to the day when we can safely return to our home on 8th Street and serve the community again from our office.