British Columbia

Some 911 callers in B.C. faced waits as long as 13 minutes on Thanksgiving weekend

E-Comm 911 says wait-time issues have been a growing concern over the past number of months and are originating "downstream" at the B.C. Emergency Health Service, which oversees ambulance operations in the province.

Slow response by ambulance service causing major delays

Two paramedics remove a person in a gurney from an ambulance in a parking lot.
E-Comm 911 says delays answering emergency calls are the result of backlogs at B.C. Emergency Health Services. The provincial ambulance operator has been struggling to cope with the demand posed by several health emergencies this year. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Emergency operators are once again warning people calling 911 for help that they may be stuck on hold for an extended period of time because of backlogs at the B.C. Ambulance Service.

So far this long weekend, the longest someone has waited on hold before speaking to an E-Comm 911 operator is almost 13 minutes.

The agency said the average wait time on Thanksgiving Sunday was 45 seconds, which is still much longer than usual.

"This is an extended wait time for us, and we do recognize, as well, that there were some callers who did have to wait quite a bit longer than that," said E-Comm 911 communications manager Kaila Butler. 

"This is an incredibly serious issue. It's been incredibly difficult for the public," she said.

Along with transferring calls to ambulance dispatchers, E-Comm 911 operators also transfer calls to fire and police dispatchers.

On Sunday, E-Comm 911's Twitter account warned of a second straight day of delays.

Butler said the problems originate "downstream" at the B.C. Emergency Health Service (BCEHS), which oversees ambulance operations in the province.

When someone phones 911 needing an ambulance, the operator must stay on the line with the caller until the call can be transferred to BCEHS, Butler said. 

"This has been an increasing issue over the past couple of months. Unfortunately, at this point, it is becoming a very regular occurrence and we are trying to be as transparent as possible with the public," she said.

CBC has contacted BCEHS for comment.

According to Butler, extreme heat, COVID-19, wildfires and the opioid crisis have all contributed to increased demand for emergency services this year.

"We are dedicated and absolutely working with BCEHS's leadership team to resolve it ... And of course, at this point, the challenges themselves are coming directly from their end, and it is a solution that needs to come from the BCEHS team."

Paramedics in B.C. have been speaking out about staffing shortages, burnout and a near total collapse of the ambulance system during the "heat dome" that caused record-breaking temperatures across the province at the end of June.

In July, Health Minister Adrian Dix said changes would be made to BCEHS, including adding more paramedics, dispatchers and ambulances.

On recent weekends, BCEHS has been promising double pay for staff willing to pick up overtime shifts that normally pay time and a half.

Butler stresses people should stay on the line if their 911 call isn't answered immediately by an operator.

"Do not hang up the phone. You will get help faster by staying on the line with us," she said. "We do strive to answer 95 per cent of 911 calls in five seconds or less." 

E-Comm 911 handles emergency calls in 25 regional districts in British Columbia.