British Columbians should expect longer than usual emergency call wait times this Canada Day long weekend, as “critical staff shortages” plague the province’s 911 dispatcher.
On Thursday, Emergency Communication Professionals of BC (ECPBC), the union representing 911 operators, said it obtained an alert from E-Comm, the agency handling 911 calls for 99% of the province, including Greater Victoria.
According to ECPBC President Donald Grant, E-Comm’s message noted its staff could be forced into overtime to meet minimum staffing levels, beginning Thursday, June 30th thru Saturday, July 2nd.
Grant calls it a “critical situation.”
He finds “just a fraction” of the dispatchers needed to meet anticipated demand are working amid the “current solution,” forcing them to work beyond their normal four-day, 12-hour shift schedule.
E-Comm’s 911 operators not only connect people with police, fire, and ambulance but also perform dispatch and answer calls for 33 police and 40 fire departments, ECPBC explains.
On Monday, the agency said it was seeing a jump in call volumes, with one of the busiest summers on record likely ahead due to eased COVID-19 restrictions.
But staffing issues are nothing new for E-Comm, primarily due to its “inability” to recruit and retain workers because of “non-competitive wages and severe burnout,” ECPBC says.
“One year ago today, E-Comm was understaffed in its complement of 911 dispatchers by over 80%, and this year, we have lost another 20% of the remaining team,” added Grant.
“This is not how a critical function should be resourced, and it certainly doesn’t meet the expectations of the public who expect someone to answer the phone quickly when they dial for help.”
A 2021 report commissioned by E-Comm found an extra 125 full-time call takers are needed to meet operational demands because the agency “cannot be successful” with an understaffed system relying on overtime and staff missing breaks.
ECPBC says E-Comm operators should answer 911 calls in five seconds, police emergency lines in ten seconds, and non-emergency lines in three minutes or less.
However, in the past year, staffing shortages have, in some circumstances, pushed wait times on police emergency lines past ten minutes and non-emergency wait times past two hours, the union adds.
To ensure real emergencies requiring immediate assistance from first responders get the best response, E-Comm’s offering tips to help reduce misdialed and non-urgent calls to 911.