British Columbia

Emergency dispatchers in B.C. say staffing crunch could impact services during Canada Day weekend

Emergency dispatchers in B.C. are warning of a staffing crunch and forced overtimes heading into Canada Day weekend, a year after the system nearly collapsed during the heat dome in the province.

E-Comm says they have been 'transparent' about their organization's understaffing and underfunding

A 911 operator answers emergency calls in Toronto. Emergency dispatchers are warning of staffing shortages in B.C. ahead of Canada Day. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

Emergency dispatchers in B.C. are warning of a staffing crunch and forced overtimes heading into Canada Day weekend, a year after the system nearly collapsed during the heat dome in the province.

The issue of short-staffing among B.C.'s emergency dispatchers is not new. Last Thanksgiving, some 911 callers faced wait times of 13 minutes; during the deadly heat dome, one paramedic said there was a time when first responders had more than 200 calls pending.

This year, staffing issues are manifesting in forced overtime work at E-Comm, a non-profit corporation reporting to multiple municipalities. The authority is responsible for 99 per cent of emergency calls in the province.

According to Donald Grant, union president of the Emergency Communications Professionals of B.C., the issue has been caused by a lack of hiring at E-Comm.

"There has been a lift in funding for this year. However, we haven't been able to fill the staff vacancies," he told CBC News. "More people are leaving than they are able to hire."

Grant says the idea of forced overtime was coming at the worst time for operators, who have to work 12-hour days and were feeling burned out.

Akash Gill, who works as a police call taker, said they were expecting an 80 per cent increase in staff last year. Instead, they were down 20 per cent of the workforce.

"I think we saw the system's breaking point last year with the climate emergencies that we had," she said. 

"Speaking for myself as an operator, I'm scared to see last summer repeat itself knowing that we have even less staff."

Gill says she once worked a 12-day stretch last summer without a break, and has seen 911 callers wait up to 15 minutes while she's working.

"Being on the phone with somebody and then seeing 10 other calls holding — you don't know what those emergencies are," she said.

"You don't know if it's a pocket dial from a different city that's not affected at all, or you don't know if it's somebody who's trapped in their vehicle with water rising."

No public wait times

Grant said it was increasingly difficult to evaluate how E-Comm was doing, given that the operator does not release statistics on wait times publicly.

He says E-Comm should hire more people on the call floor, and allow them to take proper breaks so they can be supported.

In a statement, E-Comm said they have been "transparent" about the fact their organization is understaffed and underfunded.

"Within that context, the weekend staffing numbers are 10 per cent less than the number of call takers we are budgeted for and 22 per cent less on the dispatch side," the statement read.

E-Comm handles most of the province's emergency calls, and reports to municipalities around B.C. They say they've been transparent with their staffing struggles. (E-Comm)

They also said the mechanism of "forced overtime" was only used in extreme cases, and was part of the union agreement with the dispatchers.

"Over the past four weeks this has occurred eight times, including for this weekend where we have had to schedule one employee on 'forced overtime'," the statement reads.

The company said they recognized the impact of forced overtime on their staff, and that they would try to work with their funding partners to hire more staff ahead of a busy summer without COVID-19 restrictions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Akshay Kulkarni

Journalist

Akshay Kulkarni is a journalist who has worked at CBC British Columbia since 2021. Based in Vancouver, he has covered breaking news, and written features about the pandemic and toxic drug crisis. He is most interested in data-driven stories. You can email him at akshay.kulkarni@cbc.ca.

With files from Adjata Camara

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