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Be prepared to wait if you have to call 911

Image Credit: SUBMITTED/KGH Foundation
June 30, 2021 - 6:00 AM

With the heat wave hitting the province and B.C.’s restart program moving into high gear, the 911 emergency call system is getting swamped.

Last weekend, that meant sometimes having to wait five minutes just to get through to an operator and more than 45 minutes for some calls to be transferred to other agencies.

“I think it’s the perfect storm,” Donald Grant, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 8911, which represents the 911 operators, told iNFOnews.ca.

“You’ve got the heat wave that’s going on right now, the province-wide restart where people are starting to go out and interact with other people in public and, on top of that, there’s a 911 operator shortage. There just aren’t enough people available to take the calls.”

There were 8,000 calls on Saturday and 7,300 Sunday in B.C., a 55 per cent increase above the daily average for June, he said. Since the 911 service covers 99 per cent of the province, those wait times were just as bad in the Okanagan and Thompson regions as anywhere else in B.C.

There were 1,975 calls for ambulances yesterday alone, breaking the all-time record that was set Saturday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said, at a news briefing today, June 29.

The shortage of 911 operators is longstanding but has been complicated by COVID.

“With the pandemic and endured stress that’s been going on for so long, it’s become a really stressful and strenuous job to be doing,” Grant said. “With the current conditions we’re having with the restart, that’s really combining with our own stresses at work as the call volumes start to surge.”

It’s a tough job, with operators working 12 hour shifts – two days shifts followed by two night shifts and four days off. It also includes working weekends and holidays.

There’s no end in sight to the staff shortages as it takes nine-months of on-the-job training with an operator before someone is left to take calls on their own.

“When it comes to emergency services, emergency measures need to be taken to deal with these wait times,” Grant said.

But he didn’t have any suggestions as to what those measures should be. All he knows is that, when someone calls into 911, seconds matter.

“Being the union president, I get calls from operators every day,” Grant said. “Hearing the helplessness in their voices as they talk about the past weekend’s events and going into today, exhausted, burnt out, stretched thin. They feel the pain when they get a caller who is on the phone for five minutes.”

That doesn’t mean people should hesitate about calling for help.

“If there’s any doubt in your mind and you think you’re having an emergency, especially with these wait times, don’t hesitate to call,” Grant said. “The last thing we want is to have a person make a decision that makes their wait even longer.”

Just be prepared to wait awhile for that operator to come on the line and don’t hang up, Grant advised.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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