Staffing shortages at the RCMP telecommunications centre in Manitoba have reached a "critical level" with 35 per cent of positions vacant, according to an internal staff note obtained by CBC News.
Employees at the Operational Communications Centre are the people who respond to 911 calls and are often the first point of contact with the public who call the RCMP. They're civilian members who also help police officers by providing them with information and resources they need during an emergency.
A staff note sent to all RCMP officers in Manitoba this week said the shortage of operators will affect the communications centre's ability to provide services for officers.
Meanwhile, a CBC I-Team report in April found an eight per cent vacancy rate for RCMP officer positions in Manitoba.
The staff note sent this week says the national police service has been forced to reduce some services that communications staff provide for officers in the field.
"The OCC is experiencing staffing shortages at the critical level with 35 per cent of the Telecommunication Operator positions being vacant at this time," the staff note says.
It says the shortages have "impacted the OCC's ability to provide an optimal service and therefore a reduction of services is required to be able to sustain the core duties of call-taking, dispatching and status keeping of patrol units."
When call volumes are high, the memo says RCMP officers will have to call for their own resources, such a tow trucks or security guards, if they have a cellphone.
"The OCC currently spends a great deal of time locating guards and tow trucks specifically," the memo says.
An RCMP spokesperson told CBC News the changes won't affect safety.
"The measures being implemented to address temporary reduction in staffing levels within the OCC will not affect public safety. The new measures are focused on ensuring calls from the public are a priority and can be answered in a timely manner," said RCMP media relations officer Tara Seel in an email.
"Officer safety will not be affected," Seel said.
'An unacceptable risk to manage'
But others are not so sure.
"To see a 35 per cent vacancy rate in the operational communications centres is nothing less than alarming," said Brian Sauvé, a sergeant on leave from the RCMP who serves as co-chair of the National Police Federation, an organization seeking to form a union for RCMP officers.
"The worst thing that can happen is someone is calling 911 and no one answers," said Sauvé. "That's the worst-case scenario.
"We just have to hope that it doesn't result in a tragedy, whether it be to the public or whether it be to a member of the RCMP. Fingers crossed," Sauvé said, calling the changes "risk management."
"To me it's an unacceptable risk to manage," he said, adding the situation "should not have gotten to the point where they are 35 per cent vacant in their operational communications centre.
"It's officer safety but it's also public safety," said Sauvé.
He said members in Manitoba, especially in smaller communities, rely on the telecom operators "for just about everything" — such as calling for backup, the canine unit or for emergency response teams, if necessary.
Before officers roll up to an address, the telecom centre sends them electronic dispatch tickets containing important background information.
"So I know now with my threat assessment who I am responding to, whether it is good to have backup, what's my threat level going in? What's the danger to the public and the neighbours?" Sauvé said.
He said officers often rely on the telecom staff to run those advance safety checks about locations, people and firearms when officers are sent to a call.
He said without that help, "I have to pull over to the side of the road and pull out the details of the persons attached to that file and do the queries myself from my own laptop in my car, thus delaying my response, putting whoever has called 911 at risk for a delayed response.
"Or if I choose not to do those queries, I'm putting myself at risk because I don't know what I'm getting into."
Operators will focus on 'core duties': RCMP
However, Seel said officers will continue to receive all critical support from the operators.
"Telecommunication operators will remain focused on core duties of call-taking, dispatching and status keeping of patrol units. There will only be a reduction of supplementary tasks (such as calling tow trucks) to focus on calls from the public," Seel said.
She didn't say how many people work in the dispatch centre but she said the RCMP is trying to recruit more staff.
"There are ongoing efforts to reduce the temporary reduction in staffing levels within the OCC, including the continual hiring and training of new telecommunication operators. There is presently a new class of telecommunication operators in the process of completing their training with another class scheduled for the fall of 2017," said Seel.
The telecom operators don't have a union but the Canadian Union of Public Employees has applied for certification to represent them.
When RCMP officers got a 4.8 per cent wage hike last month, the telecommunications staff were left out.
"What I'm wondering is, why has it got to that point?" asked Greg Janzen, reeve of the southern Manitoba Emerson-Franklin municipality, about the dispatch centre vacancy rate.
'What I'm wondering is, why has it got to that point?' - Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen
"That is very concerning, because I know, at least around Emerson in our municipality, we are making a lot of 911 calls," said Janzen.
He suggested increasing pay for telecommunications operators might help address the shortage.
"We do have to fill these positions. This is not a business where you try to do more with less, this is actually public safety and you need to have these positions filled," he said.
Officer vacancy rate has dropped, RCMP says
In April, the CBC I-Team reported the vacancy rate for RCMP officers in Manitoba was eight per cent, amid concerns about increased stress levels for members and low morale.
The RCMP now says the eight per cent figure as of Feb. 1, 2017 has been updated.
Staff Sgt. Julie Gagnon in Ottawa said in an email that as of April 1, the RCMP officer vacancy rate for Manitoba is 5.8 per cent — 62 vacancies among 1,068 positions.
Gagnon has not specified whether the 5.8 per cent vacancy rate takes into account what Sauvé refers to as "soft vacancies," meaning positions that are technically filled by someone who may actually be on leave, such as parental leave or sick leave.
Sauvé said soft vacancies hurt morale by adding to the workload of other officers if a position is not backfilled when someone is on leave.
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