Funding crucial to stopping 'catastrophic failure' of B.C.'s 911 system, union says

File photo. (Oleg Magni / Pexels)

The union representing B.C.'s 911 dispatchers says funding is crucial to stopping the system's potential "catastrophic failure."

In recent months E-Comm, B.C.'s multi-municipality agency that connects 911 callers to the proper emergency service provider, has faced longer-than-usual wait times for those needing emergency help.

E-Comm explained previously that the waits are largely due to staffing shortages with B.C. Emergency Health Services, and that when a caller can't get through or is put on hold when calling 911, it may be because a dispatcher is waiting with a previous caller for a BCEHS counterpart to answer the phone. 

In a statement Thursday, the union that represents many of these workers agreed the service is understaffed, but also said it's facing "a critical funding shortage."

"A recent report commissioned by E-Comm by Price Waterhouse Coopers 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," a statement from Emergency Communications Professionals of BC says.

The union said that report outlined the current roster of 153 full-time call takers must nearly double to meet operational demands. It also said overtime costs in 2020 added up to nearly $3 million, which it said could have supported 35 more full-time positions.

According to the union, the funding model is "reactionary in design," and is based on past use. The union claims funding doesn't "provide a necessary cushion needed for high-demand situations."

"The 911 system is a basic and universal necessity critical to public health and safety for all British Columbians," said Donald Grant, CUPE 8911 president, in a news release.

"When you call 911 in an emergency, each and every second can mean the difference between life and death."

The union said workers are expected to answer 911 calls in five seconds or less, police emergency lines in 10 seconds or less and non-emergency lines in three minutes or less. But recent staff shortages have meant some wait times on police emergency lines have exceeded 20 minutes, while non-emergency wait times have been longer than five hours in some situations.

In its statement, the union said "an immediate infusion of financial resources" is needed.

"The current situation is creating a dangerous cycle: our dedicated members who handle 99 per cent of the 911 calls across B.C. are breaking under the pressure of a system in failure, which only makes the situation worse," Grant said.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Penny Daflos