When Andrea Sanel noticed flames at a townhouse complex across from her highrise apartment building in Mississauga, she quickly grabbed her phone and dialed 911.
“I would have expected that someone would have answered the phone,” said Sanel.
“I felt very uncomfortable being put on hold.”
Sanel waited 37 seconds before a voice took over for an automated message. She said she was shocked it took that long.
“The flames got bigger, they started coming out more, they started getting close to the trees, more black smoke, I was very concerned that the smoke was going to come towards us, we’re very close,” said Sanel.
The fire at a townhouse on Copenhagen Road in Mississauga left a man dead and 10 families displaced from their homes. The damage was extensive.
Peel Regional Police pointed out that Sanel was one of 27 callers to 911 about the fire, hence the delay to respond.
For Sanel, she said 37 seconds felt like a lifetime, especially when she learned a man died.
“A long time when it comes to somebody’s life,” she said, referring to the time she waited on hold before a voice picked up her call.
Similar concerns were raised with the Toronto Police Service on Tuesday.
“We get a lot of people who call for calls that are really not emergencies and aren’t appropriate and we remind them that every person who calls 911 that shouldn’t delays someone who is in a genuine emergency,” Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash told Global News.
But a retired Toronto communications operator, who said she wishes to remain anonymous, reached out to Global News after hearing those comments from Pugash. He said it takes experienced operators 15 seconds to determine whether a 911 call is an emergency, so the issue is the lack of staff.
In August, a hiring freeze at the Toronto Police Service was lifted and it was acknowledged that there would be “a review of the current establishment of communications operators to ensure adequate staffing levels to support public safety,” as laid out in the modernization statement released jointly by the Toronto Police Services Board, the Toronto Police Service and the Toronto Police Association (TPA).
The TPA said there has been no update and no new hires.
Over in Peel Region, Sanel said she wishes she had called 911 sooner and that someone had answered her call quicker.
“I’m on hold and I’m thinking, and even though it wasn’t that long, it feels really long because this fire is getting within seconds larger and larger,” she said.
“Had it been my emergency in my home, I would not have been very pleased.”