Changes to B.C. 911 procedure ‘temporary,’ E-Comm clarifies, as union raises alarm

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

A new change allowing most 911 operators in B.C. to hang up on callers waiting for an ambulance is only temporary, E-Comm has clarified as union criticism of the decision mounts.

As soon as wait times for ambulance connection return to acceptable levels in the province, transfer procedure will revert to operators staying on the line until callers hear back from BCEHS.

“That’s a really good practice in normal times, but as we know, right now we’re under a lot of strain in our system,” said E-Comm CEO Oliver Grüter-Andrew.

“We want to be clear, this is a temporary change to accommodate extraordinary circumstances.”

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

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According to E-Comm, the largest 911 dispatch service in B.C., allowing operators to disconnect after placing callers on hold for an ambulance would free them up to take other calls mounting in the lineup.

Those calls could be more urgent, Grüter-Andrew added, noting that operators have spent many frustrating minutes on the phone with callers suffering from a cough or twisted ankle — “helpless” to assist others who are calling 911.

The decision announced Thursday sparked immediate concern from CUPE Local 8911, which represents more than 500 E-Comm staffers, including dispatchers.

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

“It’s a worst case scenario. It’s the the things that nightmares are made of, to be out there on your own potential with your partner having a heart attack,” said union president Donald Grant on Friday.

“These are situations that you shouldn’t have to go through by yourself.”

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Grant said a patient’s situation can change drastically during the transfer time between 911 and BCEHS, and if an operator hangs up, BC EHS may miss out on critical information or updates.

Even if the situation isn’t critical, he added, it puts British Columbians at ease to have someone walk through the wait with them, rather than listen to an automated voice message or have to hang up and redial 911 if their situation becomes more urgent.

Read more: ‘The service isn’t there’: B.C. woman takes taxi to hospital after lengthy ambulance delay

Grüter-Andrew also clarified Friday that dispatchers will use their training and professional judgment to determine which calls are safe to be disconnected.

“We would not hang up on a five-year-old child who needs attention for their injured parent,” he explained, adding that calls for an ambulance make up only 30 per cent of all 911 calls in the province.

He said he doesn’t know how long the new transfer policy will be in effect.

Click to play video: 'E-Comm posted warning on social media Thursday of significant delays in 911-calls' E-Comm posted warning on social media Thursday of significant delays in 911-calls
E-Comm posted warning on social media Thursday of significant delays in 911-calls – Oct 7, 2021

Health Minister Adrian Dix, meanwhile, said the province must continue to increase funding for BC EHS to get more dispatchers, ambulances and paramedics on the ground.

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A report commissioned by Price Waterhouse Coopers, commissioned by E-Comm, recently found the dispatch service needs to increase add 125 full-time call-takers to its current roster of 153 in order to meet current demands.

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