Months after Global News first reported on lengthy wait times in the Toronto police 911 communications centre, several new personnel are on duty responding to calls from the public as of Tuesday.
“We expect to see a change in terms of our response times,” Toronto Police Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon recently told Global News in an interview from one of two communications centre sites in the city, noting there will be an extra 14 positions on average during a shift.
In April, the Toronto Police Services Board approved increasing the total complement of communications operators by 50 positions to 281, as well as adding three new supervisors and implementing, on a permanent basis and implementing a revised shift schedule to tackle staffing shortages and cut wait times.
During a shooting at North York Sheridan Mall in August that left a man dead, a source inside the centre shared internal call volume data from the late afternoon on August 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.
Coxon, who was appointed deputy chief of the Toronto Police Service in 2017, was asked to lead a review of the 911 centre by Chief Mark Saunders.
“There was a lot of frustration at first — I knew that within an hour of being there on my first day as deputy chief,” she said, adding she visited the centre multiple times to understand the problems and concerns first-hand.
“I can tell you that the changes we are making have come from the communications operators and others who work on the ground floor. That’s how it always is, that people who do the job know where the pain points and how best to fix them … It’s a work in progress for sure.”
In looking at the source of the wait time issues inside the 911 centre, Coxon said a major cause of delays involves non-emergency calls coming into police.
“It is a constant challenge. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times we talk about it, our calls for service coming into communications services are up 8.5 per cent this year,” she said.
“So at a time when we’re talking about calling 211 for social services or 311 for bylaw services, people seem to be calling us more. We’re not sure why that is.
“It’s heartbreaking because you are taking that line away from somebody whose child might be choking.”
Police officials said education on the appropriate service to call is an ongoing task.
For instance, during a recent severe rainstorm, the 911 centre had its second-busiest day ever. Coxon said many of the calls coming into 911 were for downed trees and hydro wires, but most of those calls should have been reported to the City of Toronto’s 311 phone line and Toronto Hydro. She also said if people are unsure, they can call the non-emergency police line at 416-808-2222.
Aside from education, police are now looking for a technological solution to addressing routine tasks that can consume staff resources such as routine 911 call disclosures for court cases and transcription.
What it takes to become a communications operator
Susan Sharp is a training co-ordinator for the 911 centre and trains new communications operators (COs), who handle both call-taking and dispatching duties depending on the shift needs. She works with aspiring COs and will be training chosen employees during the upcoming hiring sessions.
Sharp said while they’re looking for people with varied backgrounds, there are common traits every CO should have.
“Generally speaking, a type-A personality, because you want to be in control and you want to be thorough in the information you’re recording. You have to have empathy for people. You have to care about what you’re doing. You have to be able to remember information,” she said, adding there can be more than 100 calls per shift.
“We’re typing and talking at the same time … I need to be typing what you’re telling me into the call so that the officers have that information as they’re responding because in an active event, a dynamic event where you’re watching somebody shoot somebody else and you’re yelling at me the description, I need to record that so that the dispatcher can broadcast it for the officers who are responding.”
Trainees spend the first three weeks at the Toronto police college before going to the main communications centre to sit in and experience the live environment. After that time, they will go to the secondary, backup communications centre to learn how to use the phone and computer systems for another three weeks.
WATCH: Biggest misconceptions about being a 911 communications operator
Those who are in training need to pass weekly exams and pass a practical exam at the end of the training program with an instructor pretending to be a caller. For those who pass, Sharp said they will then spend three to four months working as a call taker before going for dispatch training.
“As a call taker, it’s one-on-one. You’re dealing with that call, you’re taking that information, you’re creating the call. As a dispatcher, you’ve got 80 potential units talking to you. Sometimes, it seems like they’re all talking to you at once,” she said.
Every time someone in Toronto calls 911, it’s routed through the Toronto police communications centre. Sharp said since paramedics and firefighters have more distinct roles, Sharp said police tend to be dispatched for a broader set of incidents. She also said communications operators also have to remain on the phone throughout the call, even if it’s rerouted to another agency until it’s determined officers aren’t needed.
“If I have, for example, somebody that has been shot, life and limb first. It’s going to go to ambulance, ambulance is going to take their information but I know we’re going, right? So I hopefully created enough information that I’ve got officers going as well and I’m going to listen to ambulance take their information because we need to try to make sure that person lives,” Sharp said.
Both Coxon and Sharp said there is a greater emphasis on mental health, both in terms of the calls being received by COs but also in terms of employee health. With that greater awareness comes a greater encouragement to take the time as needed. Sharp said call-takers can flag they need to take a pause to their supervisor.
“I would have to say 99.9 per cent of the time, even though our people should do that, they don’t do that because they know the next call coming through could be, for me, a member of my family because they live in the city of Toronto,” she said.
‘How can I help you?’
Rob and Debby Agius are a husband-and-wife duo who have both been working in the Toronto police 911 communications centre for more than 25 years. They met at work. Before joining the Toronto Police Service, Debby used to be a receptionist at Buttonville Municipal Airport and Rob was a student in Seneca College’s radio and television arts program.
In addition to sharing a life and the same job, they also have something else in common: Both have been recognized as communications operators of the year.
WATCH: Memorable calls received by Toronto police 911 communications operators
Debby was recognized in 2010 for her work as a dispatcher during the G20 summit in Toronto.
“I think honestly, our training comes into play. I’m trained to do it. You hear the emergency, that officer needs help. ‘What do you need? How can I help you?’ You just deal with it because as soon as that one is finished, there’s another one going off because that was just the environment at that time,” she said when asked how she handled that experience.
“It was chaotic, it was hectic, and I went home at night and I’m like, ‘OK, I think I can sleep.’ It was just 12 hours of intense emotion for most of the day. It was exhausting.”
Rob was recognized for his work in 2017. He spent over an hour on the phone with a man in crisis. Officers were also there to arrest the man.
“[He] just needed a shoulder to lean on, needed somebody to speak to and someone to speak to for a good, long time so I kept him on the line,” he said.
“The call could have easily gone from a person in crisis to a negotiation as well, so it was my job to keep that caller on the line for as long as I could to make sure this event ended safely and that’s exactly what happened.”
When asked if there is anything that can be done to help them do their jobs better, both become bashful and said they’re available to help, but noted there are more appropriate phone numbers to call on many occasions — which in turn would help reduce time waiting in the queue.
“A lot of our time is taken up with explaining to people that, ‘Sorry, this isn’t a police issue and this is who you should be calling. They will handle it for you,'” Debby said.
“We are all well known for pulling up our socks and doing what we need to do … needs are out of our control,” Rob said.
“When a person calls us, they’re not having a good day. They’re having a bad day. They’re calling us for help.”
They both said there are some misconceptions when it comes to their roles. For example, call-takers ask a series of questions that are relevant to the situation and are required under unit-specific policy.
“They think we’re, I guess like a call centre, and they don’t understand that the questions we ask are not to waste time or have a conversation with you. I need this information for the officers, for whoever is attending to your call,” Debby said.
“A lot of times, the call may be created as something, officers may attend to it and it may turn out to be something totally different, but we go with what we’re given and that’s what we’ll act on,” Rob said.
“Our objective when we take that call is, ‘How can we help you?’ Regardless of how backlogged the calls are.”