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‘Critically understaffed’: Union for 911 operators calls for extended supports

Click to play video: 'E-Comm operators’ union calls for extended supports amid staffing shortage'
E-Comm operators’ union calls for extended supports amid staffing shortage
9-1-1 call takers working for E-Comm were given a boost in pay for overtime and weekend shifts this summer, but the incentives are set to expire next month. Grace Ke reports on the call for an extension, amid a critical staffing shortage – Aug 30, 2022

In the midst of a “dire” staffing shortage, the union representing E-Comm’s 911 operators is calling on the employer to extend temporary compensation and psychological supports.

Emergency Communications Professionals of BC (CUPE 8911) said Tuesday dispatchers are increasingly working “forced overtime” and going long stretches without breaks in an “unsustainable” environment.

“We’ve been in a dire situation when it comes to staffing for a while now, and these temporary measures really alleviated a lot of that pain on Friday and Saturday night,” union president Donald Grant told Global News.

“Those were the hardest to fill shifts and folks were experiencing higher staffing levels. While those staffing levels weren’t enough … I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been.”

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Anticipating a busy summer, in June E-Comm provided shift differential enhancements on weekends, increased overtime pay, and offered additional sessions with a mental health professional. The first two measures are set to expire on Sept. 21 and the third will expire on Dec. 31, unless renewed.

“Yes, there are expiry dates on those as of right now, but that’s something we are currently assessing to determine what needs to be extended … and on top of that, which of these initiatives that we launched of the summer have had the most impact on our staff?” said E-Comm communications manager Kaila Butler in an interview.

“Which are the most beneficial for us to continue? It’s something that we’re constantly evaluating and will be communicating with our staff shortly.”

Click to play video: 'E-COMM dispatchers facing critical staff shortages over long weekend'
E-COMM dispatchers facing critical staff shortages over long weekend

E-Comm has relied on forced overtime at times to ensure enough dispatchers were available for calls, it said in a Tuesday news release. Since the start of the summer, 13 notices of forced overtime have been issued to cover a total of 9.5 shifts, it said.

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“Although forced overtime is an absolute last resort option for E-Comm, it is available through our collective agreement with CUPE Local 8911 as a mechanism to mitigate the potential risk to public and responder safety based on E-Comm’s staffing levels.”

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Butler said E-Comm has been “overly reliant” on overtime this summer and recognizes that is “not sustainable.”

Grant said E-Comm, municipalities, regional districts and the provincial government must sit down at a table to develop “permanent solutions,” which will — undoubtedly — cost money.

“E-Comm is critically underfunded and critically understaffed,” he explained.

“E-Comm answers over two million calls a year … it’s the nexus of emergency response in the province. It’s something that’s worth investing in.”

Click to play video: 'E-Comm urges British Columbians to use 911 responsibly'
E-Comm urges British Columbians to use 911 responsibly

E-Comm answers 99 per cent of B.C.’s initial 911 calls, supporting triage, dispatch and updates for around 33 police agencies and 40 fire departments.

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Between July 1 and Sept. 5, staff have entered nine of 10 weekends facing the possibility of forced overtime. More than 900 short-notice vacancy overtime messages were sent to members between June 1 and Aug. 4, according to the union.

A report presented to E-Comm by PricewaterhouseCoopers found the service needed at least 125 additional full-time equivalent employees to meet “operational demands” — an increase of about 80 per cent from current staffing levels.

Premier John Horgan said the provincial government is currently at the bargaining table with hundreds of thousands of public sector employees, including 911 dispatchers.

“I have every expectation that bargaining will be hard and we will get to a conclusion that meets the needs of the public who has to pay for it, but also the public who benefit from those services,” he said at a Tuesday press conference.

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