British Columbia·SITUATION CRITICAL

B.C. 911 dispatch operators plead for more staff amid rising emergency call wait times

The union representing E-Comm 911 dispatch operators says staff shortages are leading to unacceptable wait times for callers.

Union says more competitive wages are needed to retain and hire more staff

A dispatcher with a headset looks at a number of screens in a dispatch centre.
In 2021, E-Comm says it answered more than two million 911 calls, averaging 5,707 calls a day. It is the first point of contact for 911 callers in 25 regional districts in B.C. and provides dispatch services for more than 70 police agencies and fire departments across the province. (E-Comm)

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

A stylized phrase reading 'SITUATION CRITICAL', made to read like a red heartbeat monitor.

The union representing E-Comm 911 dispatch operators says staff shortages are leading to unacceptable wait times for callers.

In an open letter on Wednesday, Donald Grant, the president of the Emergency Communications Professionals of B.C. (CUPE 8911) said longer wait times to respond to emergency calls have become "the new normal."

"Back when I started, five-to-10-second wait times were an emergency situation. We would drop everything to go plug in right away in order to be able to answer those calls immediately.

"Now, we're regularly seeing those calls reach up to five minutes. That's completely unacceptable."

The letter said the service is "in crisis and has been for quite some time."

A 2021 Price Waterhouse Coopers report commissioned by E-Comm, which provides 911 services, found that the organization is relying on overtime and staff missing breaks to meet service levels. It suggested that 125 full-time call takers be hired on top of the 153 staffers currently working.

"Now, about a year later, we've lost another 20 per cent of that team, and we have a significant number of people on leave due to occupational stress injuries," Grant said.

Grant says a more competitive wage package is needed to retain and hire more staff.

In a statement issued Wednesday, E-Comm agreed that funding is not meeting the needs of the public. 

"We share CUPE Local 8911's view that the current funding model is inadequate, and we need local, regional and provincial levels of government to reconsider how best to ensure the system is properly funded," the statement said.

In a statement, B.C.'s Ministry of Public Safety said it is working with E-Comm to understand the challenges it is facing and that the province is considering long-term options to best support the delivery of services while E-Comm addresses its immediate challenges.

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