'A lot of them are not able to cope anymore': 911 calls taking toll on first responders

A woman in Port Moody desperately flagged down a police officer.

"She told the officer that her father was unresponsive and wasn’t breathing," said Const. Sam Zacharias, with the Port Moody police. "She stated she was unable to reach 911 herself."

Her father was at his home in Coquitlam when this happened Tuesday just after noon.

"That police officer was able to request E-comms to dispatch an ambulance and Coquitlam fire rescue to the scene," said Zacharias.

This is just an example of the extreme measures some family members are taking to get help for loved ones, as 911 call wait times reach record lengths.

"We’ve seen historic call volumes in terms of the number of 911 calls that have been coming through our centre," said Jasmine Bradley. "Our longest wait time was on Monday and that was 17 minutes."

That wait time meant the person calling waited 17 minutes just to have their call answered, it doesn’t account for the wait to transfer to whatever emergency service they were requesting.

"It’s a very serious issue," said Bradley. "Because the biggest driver to these wait times really has been the delays in transferring calls to the ambulance service, B.C. emergency health services and the ministry of health, really need to be the ones to look at this problem and to fix it."

For paramedics on the ground, they are running from one call to the next.

"You’re responding to calls from the start of your shift and that goes on for 12 hours. And it doesn’t relent," said David Leary, a paramedic and spokesperson for Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. "A lot of them are not able to cope anymore."

He said they’re still wearing all their PPE from the pandemic, and even before this heat wave it made work challenging.

"You have sweat pooling in your boots," said Leary. "When you remove your gloves there’s literally sweat pouring out of your gloves. It is a very, very difficult situation to work under."

At times the calls paramedics are heading to is no longer the most urgent, so they have to abandon that one and switch directions. That is also weighing heavily on crews he explained.

"They’re just at their wits end and they’re having a very difficult time thinking about having to lace their boots back up, put their uniforms back on and get back out there," he told CTV News.

When asked about call delays, B.C. Emergency Health Services said the combination of the pandemic, heat wave and ongoing overdose crisis is both mentally and physically exhausting for everyone, especially call takers, dispatchers and paramedics.

"During B.C.’s unprecedented heat wave, B.C. Emergency Health Services’ call takers, dispatchers and paramedics have seen a spike in heat-related 911 calls from the public. On June 28, paramedics responded to 1,975 patient events — the highest ever ambulance call volume day for B.C.," said BCEHS chief operating officer Darlene MacKinnon.

 Meanwhile Vancouver police have added additional officers to help deal with the increase in call volume.

"Today specifically we have an additional 24 officers throughout this city with another team kind of on standby,” said Vancouver police Const. Tania Visintin.

They’ve even added hospital transportation to their line of duty.

"When it’s a very dire need they will bring patients to hospital in our police vehicles," said Visintin.

But officers are also attending a surge in sudden death calls, and that too is taking a toll.

"For our members to go from one death, to another death, to another death and then deal with the grieving families, it’s hard. It’s hard to do that once a day so you know to do that, our members are just doing an exceptional job too,” said Visintin.