9-1-1 Operators ‘stunned’ by E-Comm decision to abandon callers

  • December 1, 2021

9-1-1 Operators ‘stunned’ by E-Comm decision to abandon callers

December 1, 2021 

Vancouver, BC: Stunned is the word being used by 9-1-1 call dispatchers who have been informed that, effective today, 9-1-1 Operators transferring calls to the ambulance service will no longer be waiting on the line with the caller until ambulance dispatchers pick up – a wait that can be many minutes long.

“This decision goes against everything we’ve been trained to do, and every common-sense approach to 9-1-1 service delivery,” says CUPE Local 8911 President Donald Grant. “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.”

In its media release today, E-Comm said that the change will “free up” call-takers to handle more incoming emergency calls more quickly. But Grant says, this amounts to a stop gap measure when what is urgently required is an immediate infusion of funding support from local governments and development of a new funding model to avoid catastrophic failure. A recent report commissioned by E-Comm by Price Waterhouse Coopers concluded that the organization cannot be successful with an understaffed system, suggesting the current roster of 153 full-time call takers needs to increase by 125 to meet operational demands.

E-Comm further stated that the decision was necessary because 9-1-1 call-takers are not medically trained or authorized to give medical advice.

This is not about being medically trained—it’s about being on the line and available to reassure callers in distress. We’re talking about human beings experiencing real emergencies, and to abandon them during their time of need is simply unacceptable,” says Grant. “You can imagine the worst-case scenario that can happen while waiting alone on the phone in your time of need.”

Since the inception of the 9-1-1 service in British Columbia and other regions of Canada, protocol has dictated that the dispatcher stays on the line until a service-specific dispatcher is picked up, in this case ambulance. Today’s decision means that British Columbians seeking ambulance assistance will wait in a hold queue. Until ambulance dispatch picks up the call, there will be no one on the line but an automated voice—a wait that, due to severe understaffing, has been more than 20 minutes in some cases.

Dispatchers point out that circumstances during calls change very quickly, making it imperative that operators stay on the line with callers until the ambulance service connects on the line. Should a caller lose consciousness or become unable to respond while waiting for ambulance dispatch to answer, the 9-1-1 Operator would relay any key information received from the caller, phone number, and any location information received from the caller’s phone.

 Sign the petition at www.ecpbc.ca/secondscount to demand the 911 service you deserve today. 

FAST FACTS – BC’s 9-1-1 System

  • E-Comm is a not-for-profit organization that services 99% of the 9-1-1 calls made in British Columbia.
  • E-Comm dispatches for 33 police and 40 fire departments across BC.
  • The E-Comm 9-1-1 system is at risk of catastrophic failure due to severe staffing shortages caused by a lack of funding
  • A recent report commissioned by E-Comm from the firm Price Waterhouse Coopers concluded the organization cannot be successful with an understaffed system that relies so heavily on overtime and staff missing breaks, nor simply abandons efforts to meet its service levels. The situation is challenging during periods in which there is typical demand, but during a crisis— such as the extreme weather events experienced during this summer’s heatwave—E-Comm is simply unable to handle call volumes.
  • The report concluded E-Comm requires an 84% increase in staffing levels to meet demand
  • 45 full time equivalent staff are needed immediately to prevent a catastrophic failure of the system.
  • E-Comm operates using a cost-recovery model based on a cost-sharing fee levy structure: it collects revenue from the regional districts and municipalities that use E-Comm for 9-1-1 services, police services, and fire services. The current funding model is deeply flawed and reactionary.
  • Funding is based on past usage, which doesn’t account for costs rising at above-inflationary levels, nor does it provide a necessary cushion or flexibility that is required when high-demand periods occur, like the heat waves in British Columbia this summer.
  • 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 line in three minutes or less.
  • In January, wait times for police emergency lines reached more than 7 minutes, and non-emergency wait times reached over 63 minutes. In March, police emergency wait times reached more than 10 minutes, and non-emergency wait times over 72 minutes. In June, in the midst of the heatdome, police emergency line wait times reached more than 47 minutes and non-emergency wait times of over 200 minutes. In August 2021, 9-1-1 wait times were over 4 minutes, and police emergency wait times reached more than 21 minutes, and the police non-emergency reached more than 5 hours.
  • There is a serious staffing crisis in E-Comm, that runs the risk of getting worse.
    • Overtime has become a requirement to maintain operations; staffing levels are otherwise insufficient.
    • In response to a recent survey of members of CUPE Local 8911, 92% indicate that they have been negatively impacted by understaffing.
    • 73% of respondents have experienced an increase in workload throughout the pandemic.
    • 54% of respondents have actively looked for other employment outside of E-Comm in the last year, and an additional 9% plan to begin looking.
    • 73% of respondents believe that the quality of service they are able to provide to the public has worsened over the last three years.
  • The present situation is untenable from a public safety, human resources and financial perspective
  • In 2020 alone, E-Comm spent $2,950,000 on overtime, the equivalent of 35 FTEs, and this is representative of an organization in distress.
  • Fixing the funding crisis ensure public funds can be appropriately directed to recruitment and training of new staff right now, and improved supports for existing staff.
  • With additional resources, E-Comm can make its current operations sustainable and meet the needs of the public served and represented by its shareholding municipalities.