VANCOUVER — The agency that handles most of the province’s 911 calls is warning operators they may be forced to work overtime to make up for staffing shortages as the demand for emergency services is expected to rise this summer.
The staffing crunch has become “critical,” says the union representing 911 operators, noting that E-Comm — the agency whose operators connect 99 per cent of 911 callers to police, fire or ambulance — has already mandated some call-takers to work additional 12-hour shifts four times in the past eight weeks.
Surrey’s Akash Gill, secretary of CUPE Local 8911, was working overtime on Sunday when she noticed her readerboard lit up with more emergency calls than the number of operators on shift that night across the 25 provincial regions E-Comm serves.
“There was barely time to take a breath,” she recalled. “I felt guilty getting up to go to the bathroom because of calls on hold. I didn’t know if someone’s life was on the line.”
On Monday, E-Comm notified Gill and more than 150 other full-time dispatchers that from June 30 to July 3, the agency “may have to resort” to forcing extra shifts upon some workers in order to meet minimum staffing requirements over the Canada Day long weekend.
While 911 call-takers are used to receiving overtime offers through text message, Gill said being forced to work overtime is a new trend.
“It has been happening considerably more often in the past few weeks.”
The need for more 911 operators in B.C. was evident last Saturday as some callers waited for up to three hours for an ambulance — once they ran the gauntlet of half-hour wait times to speak with an E-Comm call-taker, a dispatcher previously told Postmedia.
The agency offered different numbers. According to E-Comm spokesperson Jasmine Bradley, there was a 23 per cent increase in 911 calls last weekend — for a total of 19,567 — compared to other weekends this June. The average call was answered within 1.5 seconds, in accordance with the agency’s stated target of picking up calls within five seconds, 95 per cent of the time.
“This year, funding from our police partners has allowed E-Comm to hire 63 more full-time call-takers so far,” Bradley said.
However, the agency — funded by B.C. municipalities — is bogged down with more calls than last year, magnifying the operator shortage.
“Even if we were staffed to budget, we would not have enough people to meet the increasing call volumes we’re seeing,” Bradley said. “Some of the highest we’ve ever experienced in E-Comm’s 23 years of service.”
The agency is predicting a 12 per cent jump in emergency calls this year compared to 2021, which already saw some of the busiest days for 911 calls recorded.
Gill said heightened stress on the job has resulted in widespread burnout among those in the industry and a 20 per cent decline in E-Comm operators in the workforce this year.
“With the current workload and compensation, the job is becoming less desirable. It’s gotten to the point where you have to forsake your own well-being to make sure you are answering those calls.”
E-Comm operators’ starting wage is set at $30.41 an hour.
“We have entered a critical situation,” said Donald Grant, president of CUPE Local 8911.
He said “just a fraction” of the dispatchers needed to meet anticipated demand are working amid the “current solution,” forcing them to work beyond their normal four-day, 12-hour shift schedule.”
Grant is calling E-Comm’s latest measure to address the ongoing struggle to employ and retain 911 operators “simply unsustainable.”
In an effort to help call-takers get to as many callers as possible in its stated service target, the agency changed internal policy in December to allow operators to disconnect with callers already transferred to B.C. Emergency Health Services, the provincial agency in charge of dispatching ambulances.
Previously, operators would stay on the line with local callers and monitor any changes to the circumstance.
“The policy change was meant to be temporary but I don’t see an end in sight,” said Gill, who is considered a senior-level E-Comm operator after four years on the job.
“Now, we transfer your call and hop off the line while you’re waiting, listening to an automated message over and over again until ambulance picks up.”
A 2021 report commissioned by E-Comm and conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers 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 call takers needs to increase by 125 to meet operational demands.