Worst-case scenario of new B.C. 911 system means 'someone may die alone, listening to a recording': union

Addressing concerns about lengthy wait times faced by callers needing emergency assistance, B.C.'s provider of 911 services says it's implementing a new process, but the operators themselves are against the idea.

Several times this year, E-Comm itself has posted on social media warning the public they may have to wait on hold.

Those who've experienced issues say they've had to wait as long as 20 minutes. Some hear a recorded message. Others describe being unable to get through at all.

Initially, the issue was described by the dispatch service as being tied to a paramedic shortage, but CTV News learned in November that E-Comm's own staffing issues have impacted response times. 

The union representing 911 dispatchers warned of "catastrophic failure" of the system without a funding increase, claiming nearly double the number of full-time call-takers are needed to meet operational demands. 

And a shortage of family doctors is also playing a role, meaning more people are turning to emergency services because they don't have a health-care provider. Read more on the "trickle-down effect" here

While it's unclear how those larger issues will be addressed, there is a solution for another factor impacting wait times. Under the previous 911 system, a call-taker would determine the first responder team required for the call, then wait on the line with the caller until the right police, fire or ambulance agency picked up.

But as of Wednesday, that is no longer the case.

E-Comm announced it is implementing a process change immediately that will allow its dispatchers to disconnect from the call, leaving the caller to wait without them.

Callers will be told they're in the queue for B.C. Emergency Health Services, and that the E-Comm dispatcher needs to disconnect to answer waiting calls.

"Under normal circumstances, this transfer time averages 45 seconds, but due to higher call volumes and increased demands on the ambulance service, it is taking much longer for callers to be connected to an available BCEHS call-taker," an E-Comm spokesperson said in a news release.

In addition, E-Comm and BCEHS have been working together to help resolve the delays, and have put in place measures to separate the most urgent calls from less life-threatening situations.

BCEHS is also adding more dispatch jobs to meet the increased demand.

While E-Comm is confident in its approach, workers with the service said in a statement through their union that they were "stunned" by the decision to "abandon" callers.

In a statement, the president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 8911 said: "The decision goes against everything we've been trained to do, and every common-sense approach to 911 service delivery."

Donald Grant said operators have never disconnected before making contact with a BCEHS call-taker, a process meant to ensure critical information is passed along.

Calling the new system a "stop-gap measure," he again pushed for financial support from local governments.

"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," Grant said.

"In the worst-case scenario, this means that someone may die alone, listening to a recording."