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Kelowna 911 dispatch services suffering from ‘worrisome’ low staffing

FILE. A paramedic is seen outside ambulances parked at the entrance to the emergency department at Richmond General Hospital, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Kelowna, B.C., 911 phone operators are stretched so thin that the union representing them says it’s a public safety risk.

“These are our friends and family that are calling into 911 asking for help and right now I don’t know if I’d even advise anybody close to me to rely on a 911,” Kathleen Hippern, president of CUPE Local 104 which represents the RCMP Telecommunications Operators currently seeking a contract, said.

“It’s that bad.”

Localizing the issue, Hippern said on any given shift, there should be approximately 23 full-time qualified 911 operators working in Kelowna, and right now they’re so short-staffed that they’re seeing maybe 13 show up, some of which aren’t fully qualified for dispatch duties, only administrative tasks.

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“So it’s very worrisome and it’s all over the country right now,” she said. “And we need to really, really put some spotlight on this and create awareness because it’s scary.”

Hippern said the union has been bargaining with the treasury board and RCMP for a year and a half, following a protracted period of trying to lure them to the bargaining table. Now they’re headed to mediation.

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“Things are slow when you deal with the government and things were going well until we started talking about salary,” she said, then there were denials that there were staffing issues.

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According to RCMP’s own numbers, Hippern said there is a 40 per cent job vacancy at RCMP Emergency Communication Centres across the country. According to Hippern, however, during negotiations, they’ve said in talks that there is no staffing shortage.

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As for wages, Hippern said they’re $66,000 a year for a full-time worker, which is $20,000 to $30,000 less than counterparts in other areas.

CUPE local representing the RCMP Emergency Communication specialists is launching a massive ad campaign today.

“As first responders, our members are the public’s first point of contact in an emergency. They make sure RCMP officers and other emergency services can intervene rapidly when Canadians need help. At least, this is the theory,” said Hippern.

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“Unfortunately, when time is of the essence in a dangerous situation, Canadians are often waiting long minutes before someone is available to answer their call for help. Why? Simply because the RCMP has not retained nor hired enough staff required for these critical operations.”

For eight weeks starting Jan. 9, a massive bilingual ad campaign (bus, bus shelters and digital ads) will target downtown Ottawa where the Treasury Board office is located, as well as the areas surrounding the RCMP headquarters in Montreal and Surrey, BC.

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