A warning has been issued from the union representing B.C.’s emergency communications professionals as the Canada Day long weekend approaches.
Emergency Communications Professionals of BC said its operators received an alert from E-Comm, the agency that handles 9-1-1 calls for most of the province, advising of critical staff shortages.
“We have entered a critical situation,” Donald Grant said, Emergency Communications Professionals of BC’s president.
“This year, we have lost 20 per cent of the remaining team. We are entering the Canada Day long weekend with a fraction of the dispatchers needed to meet anticipated demand, and the current solution is forcing dispatchers to work well beyond their normal four-day, 12-hour shift schedule, which is simply unsustainable.”
E-Comm 9-1-1 dispatchers are responsible for dispatching and answering calls for 33 police and 40 fire departments around the province.
The union said the system’s ability to respond has been “critically impacted” by insufficient staffing levels resulting from challenges in recruiting and retaining staff.
A 2021 report commissioned by E-Comm conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers concluded that the organization cannot be successful with an understaffed system that relies so heavily on overtime and staff missing breaks or that simply abandons efforts to meet service levels.
The report suggests that the current roster of 153 full-time workers needs to increase by 125 to meet operational demands.
“We are answering a record-breaking number of calls,” Grant said.
“We are already stretched to the limit.”
E-Comm call takers are supposed to answer 9-1-1 calls in five seconds or less, police emergency lines in 10 seconds or less, and non-emergency lines in three minutes or less, according to the union.
In the past year, severe staffing shortages have pushed wait times on police emergency lines past ten minutes and non-emergency wait times past two hours in some circumstances, the union said.
E-Comm issued a response on Thursday afternoon.
“We want to reassure the public that we believe there are enough staff scheduled to meet anticipated emergency call volumes,” said Jasmin Bradley, E-Comm’s executive director of communications.
“However, because E-Comm call takers answer both emergency and non-emergency calls for police, extended wait times on the non-emergency lines are expected throughout the weekend as our staff prioritize incoming 9-1-1 calls.”
Bradley went on to say, ”E-Comm has been very transparent about the fact that our organization is understaffed and underfunded. Within that context, the weekend staffing numbers are 10 per cent less than the number of call takers we are budgeted for and 22 per cent less on the dispatch side.
“We recognize the impacts of regular overtime on our staff and continue to focus on recruiting new employees and working with our emergency service partners to ensure the organization is resourced and funded to meet increasing demands.”
Bradley also acknowledged that even though the service is underfunded and understaffed, even if they were at full strength, the service would still need more staff members to “meet the increasing call volumes, some of the highest ever experienced in E-Comm’s 23-years of service.”