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B.C. 911 operators can now hang up on callers waiting for ambulances

Click to play video: '911 dispatchers blast temporary solution to call delays' 911 dispatchers blast temporary solution to call delays
The temporary solution to 911 call delays implemented by E-Comm has 911 dispatchers saying people will be left on hold, on their own, during the worst time of their life. John Hua reports – Dec 2, 2021

The people who answer 911 calls in B.C. can disconnect the line if their callers are waiting on the line for an ambulance, according to new changes by the province’s largest 911 dispatcher.

Allowing 911 operators to hang up will allow them to take more calls altogether, including urgent police and fire requests, E-Comm said in a Wednesday press release.

Call-takers were previously required to wait on the line until their caller was connected to BCEHS, the police or fire department — a process that has contributed to complaints of delays in recent months.

Read more: Staff at B.C.’s 911 dispatcher flagged understaffing up to a year before deadly heat wave: emails

“The extended wait times are continuing to result in significant delays for British Columbians calling 9-1-1, which is also difficult for our call takers who are tied up and therefore helpless to assist others,” said E-Comm CEO Oliver Grüter-Andrew in the release.

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“We believe this change will take some pressure off the emergency communication system that will allow our staff to potentially help save more lives.”

BC Emergency Health Services, which manages the ambulances, supports the change, said E-Comm.

Click to play video: 'Union representing B.C. 911 dispatchers issue warning' Union representing B.C. 911 dispatchers issue warning
Union representing B.C. 911 dispatchers issue warning – Nov 6, 2021

The union representing more than 500 of E-Comm’s 911 operators, IT and support professionals, however, promptly said it was “stunned” by the move.

Operators are often the only ones who can relay information to BCEHS if a caller loses consciousness or becomes unable to respond while waiting for an ambulance, so it’s important they stay on the line, said CUPE Local 8911.

“This decision goes against everything we’ve been trained to do, and every common-sense approach to 9-1-1 service delivery,” explained union president Donald Grant in a news release.

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“Until now, our operators have never disconnected before voice contact is made, because our role is to ensure that critical information isn’t lost during the transfer.”

Read more: B.C. 911 callers left facing ‘extensive’ delays on Thursday

The union further alleges the E-Comm change is a “stop gap” that skirts the real need for more funding and staff to meet operational demands.

E-Comm said the change will not have any impact on availability of ambulances or BCEHS operators, and both organizations will be monitoring the effectiveness of the new process closely.

BCEHS, it added, has created new positions in its dispatch centres to help meet demand.

Callers to 911 in need of an ambulance will be informed they’re in the holding queue for one, said E-Comm, and operators will tell them they need to hang up to take other calls.

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