‘This lifeline is in crisis’: 911 operators union raising alarm about understaffed service

'This lifeline is in crisis': 911 operators union raising alarm about understaffed service
Emergency Communications Professionals of B.C.

The union for E-Comm 9-1-1 operators in B.C. says the emergency phone service is severely underfunded and understaffed, causing the service to deteriorate.

Donald Grant, president of Emergency Communications Professionals of BC (CUPE 8911) says it is now normal for 911 calls to take five minutes to answer.

“Five minutes might not seem very long,” Grant said in an open letter posted to the union’s website.

“But when you’re having a heart attack, tending to a badly injured child, comforting a dying car accident victim, or witnessing a senior in distress during a heat dome, you need help fast. Each second that passes can feel like a lifetime.”

Grant says the heat dome in 2021 highlighted the issues E-Comm is facing, but that it has been under stress before that.

“This lifeline is in crisis and has been for quite some time,” Grant wrote. “It wasn’t until the system was pushed past its limit during the 2021 heat dome that many began to see the dangers of a critically underfunded and understaffed 9-1-1 system.”

In the letter, Grant notes a March 2021 report by Price Waterhouse Coopers highlighted how understaffed the service is.

The report said the agency had 153 full time call takers, and estimated there was a need for an additional 125 to be hired.

This level of understaffing resulted in nearly $950,000 of overtime in 2020, according to the report.

According to Grant, as of April this year an additional 20 per cent of staff have left the organization and 28 per cent are on leave.

“Our folks have been working excessive amounts of overtime, and sometimes forced overtime, to keep minimum staffing levels going and having 911 calls answered,” Grant said in an interview with CHEK News. “And we’re also concerned about the impact that’s having on the public who are calling in for help.”

Grant says the understaffing is having an impact on 911 operators.

“The main reason why we do it is to be able to get people the help that they need,” Grant said.

“When we’re on operations floor receiving the calls, we’ll be answering call after call after call, and there’ll be this red light, this reader board up on the wall that has these red numbers that are counting up letting us know how many people are waiting and how long that they’re waiting for, it puts us under an immense amount of pressure in order to get the job done.”

E-Comm is funded through municipal governments, and Grant says the company is creating a multi-year funding and service stabilization plan, but needs the funding from the municipalities in order to implement it.

“Our members are going above and beyond to be able to help the members of the public and the sheer lengths that they’re going to are absolutely extraordinary,” Grant said.

“What they need is a light at the end of the tunnel that this is indeed going to be fixed that there is help on the way and that help really looks like funding.”

Laura BroughamLaura Brougham

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