An Open Letter to all British Columbians:
As British Columbians, we all rely on certain core services being available at the most critical moments of our lives. Because when they aren’t, an urgent situation can become catastrophic. We are taught from a young age that, when there’s an emergency, we should reach for the nearest phone and dial 9-1-1. And when we dial those three numbers, there is a base-level expectation that the call will be answered immediately, and help will be sent fast. Because every second counts.
This lifeline is in crisis and has been for quite some time. Because of severe underfunding and understaffing in recent years, 9-1-1 operators have seen the service deteriorate as emergency calls take priority over non-emergency calls. It has sadly become “the new normal” to see five-minute hold times on emergency lines and hours-long waits on non-emergency lines. Five minutes might not seem very long. But when you’re having a heart attack, tending to a badly injured child, comforting a dying car accident victim, or witnessing a senior in distress during a heat dome, you need help fast. Each second that passes can feel like a lifetime.
For most people, the 9-1-1 system is out of sight and out of mind. It wasn’t until the system was pushed past its limit during the 2021 heat dome that many began to see the dangers of a critically underfunded and understaffed 9-1-1 system. In March 2021, we learned just how bad the situation at E-Comm truly was. In a report to E-Comm, the firm Price Waterhouse Coopers found that the current roster of 153 full-time call takers needs to increase by 125 to meet operational demands. A more than 80 per cent increase. In the last quarter of 2021, E-Comm experienced call volumes that were 22 per cent higher than the year prior. By April this year, we had lost another 20 per cent of that team, and an unprecedented 28 per cent of staff are on leave. Those of us who remain are working more overtime—and, more frequently, forced overtime—to meet minimum staffing levels. When delays increase the risk for greater suffering—as witnessed during the heat domes—you know the system is broken. This is completely unacceptable for British Columbians.
The pathway forward is clear, but the problem is a lack of consistent and stable funding. This is caused, in large part, by a problematic and complex funding formula, ill-equipped to deal with the inflationary realities of emergencies services. Communities of all sizes and varying needs pay into the system, but because many have other priorities, the funding bounces based on need, responding to cyclical catastrophes. The other problem is that we are losing some of our most skilled operators to agencies that pay better – sometimes significantly better – or have manageable workloads.
If we want to address the serious risks that accompany 9-1-1 gridlock and ensure that 9-1-1 will be there for you in an emergency, then all levels of government will need to make a significant investment to fix this issue for good. What the system needs is a stable funding model: a system of ongoing support in which funding doesn’t ebb and flow based on news headlines, but is there all the time to ensure this core service can be delivered in a manner that British Columbians need and deserve—especially on the worst days of our lives.
Donald Grant, President
Emergency Communications Professionals of BC (CUPE 8911)