Months after Global News reported 911 wait times and staffing issues inside the Toronto police communications centre, a report is going to the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) asking for approval to hire dozens of new 911 operators in an effort to address ongoing concerns.
During a shooting at North York Sheridan Mall that left a man dead in August, a source inside the centre shared internal call volume data from the late afternoon on Aug. 31 with Global News. It showed there were seven dispatchers on duty. At 5:22 p.m. there were 31 calls to 911 with a wait time of one minute and nine seconds. At the time of the shooting four minutes later, the callers jumped to 86 with a wait time of five minutes and 27 seconds. At 5:30 p.m., there were 56 people trying to get a hold of 911 with a wait time of seven minutes and 17 seconds.
The internationally accepted standard for answering 911 calls suggests 90 per cent of all calls should be picked up within 10 seconds – even during the busiest time of day. The guideline is laid out by the operating procedures committee of the National Emergency Number Association. Additionally, 95 per cent of all 911 calls should be answered within 20 seconds.
In September, Chief Mark Saunders tasked newly-appointed Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon to do a high-level review of the 911 communication centre. Her review will be considered by the TPSB on Wednesday. It calls for increasing the total complement of communications operators by 50 positions as well as adding three new supervisors and implementing on a permanent basis a revised shift schedule.
The report also comes after the Toronto Police Association (TPA) launched an ad targeting Mayor John Tory, TPSB Chair Andy Pringle and Chief Mark Saunders saying they’re to blame for a “crisis” in staffing and response times. The TPA said at the time the service hasn’t adequately provided the appropriate level of staffing as officials work on implementing a large police modernization initiative.
“I don’t know if I would use the word crisis. I would say there was a problem. I would say that there were issues that we did need to fix,” Coxon said in a sit-down interview with Global News on Wednesday after an award ceremony for communications staff when asked about the severity of the issues facing the service’s call centre.
“The vast majority of time we answer 911 calls very quickly and we can get someone there very quickly. When there’s an emergency that requires a lot of people calling in – where we get 60, 100 people calling in at once – during those occasions we can find that there can be wait times.”
Coxon said she has been following media coverage on issues surrounding wait times and has been meeting with staff since assuming responsibility for the 911 centre.
“I can tell you I have personally looked at each and every one to see what happens, and not just what happened on that call but what else was happening in the communications centre at that time,” she said, noting she has gone to the centre to meet with workers directly and all hours of the day and at shift changes to observe reported problems firsthand.
“Were there problems? Yes. Are we fixing them? Absolutely.”
WATCH: Toronto police deputy chief recommends beefing up 911 call centre. Caryn Lieberman reports.
Communications operators have contacted Global News over the past several months to report issues surrounding wait times, lack of required staffing and increased stress. Coxon said these are concerns she has heard.
“When you say that you’ve received those calls, I can see it and I’ve seen it in my review that people have been burned out — there has been a problem,” she said when asked by a reporter about those complaints by workers.
“I cannot tell you how much respect I have for the people who do this work. It’s incredibly stressful and very technical as well as requiring a ton of ability to interact with people in a very compassionate way for extended periods of time. It’s a very hard job.”
One of the key recommendations going to the TPSB has to do with changing the complement of workers assigned to the communications centre. There are currently 231 communications operators in total. Coxon is proposing increasing that number by 50 workers. She said it’s a change that’s overdue.
“Our establishment is lower than it really should be. We’ve had the same establishment – the same number of people – working there for the past 25 years,” she said.
According to the report, there were 1,845,178 calls for service in 2017. Coxon said while call volumes have remained around the same, the time spent on each call has increased by approximately 33 per cent as operators are required to gather more information. So while 18 workers were required on a shift during peak period, the report said an extra three workers are needed along with an extra relief staff member.
She said by the first week of July, regardless of whether the TPSB approves the report, there will be 14 or 15 more people on the floor within a 24-hour period to address immediate staffing challenges. The report proposes doing the hiring in phases. Coxon noted the training process takes about a year and 20 to 30 per cent of recruits do not make it through the training, so she said it could take around 18 months before the impact of the new hires is fully felt within the service.
Coxon said a major focus for the service has been, and will continue to be, redirecting non-emergency calls.
“Where we’re finding where there are larger wait times, where we really want to improve, are those calls that are non-emergency calls for service. They take up a lot of time. It’s the same pool of people answering those calls,” she said.
“It’s not just about hiring more communication operators, it’s about really educating the public in terms of where you should be calling and looking at better ways to handle those lower-level calls for service.”
Coxon said the service wants more Toronto residents to call the non-emergency line, 416-808-2222, to report less urgent issues. She also noted low-level property crime can be reported on through the Toronto police website.
Meanwhile, the report also said a new 911 centre will be needed in the future since the current facility in North York is “at the end of its lifecycle.”
“A new, properly designed, equipped and staffed facility is a must. Immediate efforts must be undertaken to commence this process,” the report said, noting the back-up site is “is substandard at best.”
Officials said work has been undertaken to improve “wellness” resources for 911 communications workers, such as providing enhanced training and improving spaces for workers who need to take a break during their shift.
— With files from Caryn Lieberman