Emergency dispatchers in B.C. are outraged following a decision this week that permits 911 operators to hang up on callers waiting for an ambulance.
Vancouver’s Donald Grant, a dispatcher of seven years, says he “can’t imagine the pain” the choice to disconnect will cause people facing “what is likely one of the worst days of their life.”
“The vast majority of people who call 911 are having real emergencies — there’s an intruder in their home, or they’re having a heart attack. They need to be connected to a real human who can walk them through the process.”
The province’s largest 911 provider, E-Comm, announced Wednesday that operators will be allowed to disconnect the line after transferring callers to B.C. Emergency Health Services, the agency in charge of dispatching ambulances.
E-Comm spokesperson Jasmine Bradley said the decision to allow operators to, at their own discretion, disconnect from ambulance callers was done to free them up to tackle incoming calls.
“Delays in being able to transfer calls to ambulance have put a significant strain on all emergency services,” said Bradley. “Anytime there is a delay in connecting a caller to a fire or police agency, which makes up 70 per cent of our calls, there can be a serious public safety risk.”
Surrey’s Akash Gill, who took a job as a 911 operator to help people in 2019, said, “Now, we transfer your call and hop off the line while you’re waiting, listening to an automated message over and over again until ambulance picks up.”
“It is terrifying,” said the 27-year-old who took to social media to express her anger.
“What we are used to as operators is providing you reassurance and collecting any information in case of a worst-case scenario, like after sexual assault or domestic violence when a panicked caller might ask for an ambulance because of their injuries, but what they also need is the police.”
“I’ve answered 911 calls before where it was vital I was on the line because I wouldn’t have overheard details of what was going on in the 10 seconds I now have to direct calls.”
While operators are not able to give medical advice, they still play a vital role with callers during an unfolding medical emergency.
“Should a caller lose consciousness or become unable to respond while waiting for ambulance dispatch to answer, the 911 operator would relay any key information received from the caller,” said Grant, president of the B.C. union representing 911 operators, CUPE Local 8911.
“Now, there will be no one to audibly witness what happened.”
Emergency operators and dispatchers are not the only ones critical of the temporary procedural change.
Paramedic Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia, said the new protocol is piling more work onto the plates of B.C. Emergency Health Services’ ambulance dispatchers.
“I can’t believe it’s come to this. Recently, it’s taken us anywhere up to 20 minutes to respond to a transferred call. We’re seeing people hang up. They’re scared, they don’t know if help is coming, and we can’t blame them for that,” Clifford said.
“If we had enough people to take the 911 calls this wouldn’t be happening.”
A March report commissioned by E-Comm, conducted by consulting firm PwC, found the service could not be successful if it remained understaffed, with its 153 full-time call takers fielding the entire province’s emergency calls.
Along with ambulance dispatchers having to make callbacks to those who hung up or were disconnected, there is also a risk of the injured person leaving the scene. Ultimately, Clifford said it’s the patients waiting for help who suffer.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the province is aware a surge of emergency events has led to periods of high call volumes, with some callers facing longer-than-usual wait times.
“E-Comm operators and dispatchers do incredibly important work as the first point of contact for 911 calls, and I know that they want to be there for as many people in need as possible. The safety of people in British Columbia is always a top priority, and I expect E-Comm to take measures to ensure this is the case.”