Province not doing enough to address shortage of 911, ambulance dispatchers: critics

“Although we welcome these changes, the hiring increase is not going to increase the shortage of dispatching staff. Most of the positions are basically filling vacancies, only 30 of them are new jobs.” — Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia

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The province’s efforts to recruit new emergency dispatchers is welcomed, but unlikely to alleviate problems with emergency response in the short term — especially as B.C.’s 911 system moves to a new protocol allowing operators to hang up on non-priority calls, critics say.

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Health Minister Adrian Dix announced Friday that B.C. has hired 65 full-time staff to its roster of roughly 300 medical call takers working in dispatch centres in Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops. It plans to recruit another 30 by February.

“We are taking action to ensure that patients get the best care possible,” he said.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia, said more needs to be done.

Although we welcome these changes, m ost of the positions are filling vacancies, only 30 of them are new jobs,” Clifford said.

“Even with the new dispatchers, we’re still seeing lengthy ambulance delays. We need more staff.”

Wednesday, the province’s largest 911 provider, E-Comm , announced that operators will now be able to disconnect from the line after transferring callers to B.C. Emergency Health Services, which is in charge of dispatching ambulances.

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Spokesperson Jasmine Bradley said the temporary change is necessary to help operators get to as many callers as possible in its stated service target of answering in five seconds or less.

“It wasn’t a decision we took lightly, but the demand and strain on B.C’s emergency system have called for extraordinary measures,” Bradley said.

Nine of the people 10 busiest days of 911 calls ever recorded by E-Comm in B.C. occurred in 2021. In October, its operators sifted through a total of 182,246 calls, a 15 per cent increase over the previous year.

BCEHS and E-Comm have implemented measures to separate potentially life-threatening calls from less-urgent emergencies, Bradley said.

“If there is any reason at all to believe that an individual is in acute medical distress or is not safe to be left alone operators can use their own discretion and stay on the line.”

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Those who are disconnected from 911 will hear an automated voice message instructing them what to do if the emergency situation escalates.

“If the caller is waiting in the regular queue for an ambulance and the situation worsens, the BCEHS voice recording tells them to hang up and call 911 again so the call taker can prioritize them for an ambulance,” Bradley said.

The new triage system was created and implemented by BCEHS following the heat-wave crisis this summer that left hundreds dead, said BCEHS spokesperson Shannon Miller.

“It’s a two-channel priority system that puts calls on a dashboard in order of the time they were received,” said Miller. “The system automatically selects the next available emergency medical call taker who can provide instructions for CPR or other interventions until paramedics arrive.”

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Emergency Health Services’ declared target is to answer 90 per cent of calls within 10 seconds.

“If your circumstance is life-threatening there is a direct transition that occurs so the possibility of being put on hold is for non-life-threatening illness,” Dix said, corroborating the system.

Although Dix and E-Comm say there are protocols to separate life-threatening calls from non-life-threatening, critics say things can change quickly, which is why it’s important to have an operator stay on the line.

Surrey 911 operator Akash Gill said she’s witnessed callers’ conditions go from stable to critical in a matter of minutes. “We’re fielding multiple calls in a matter of seconds: ‘Do you need police, fire or ambulance?’”

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“If it’s identified within those first few seconds we’re communicating with the caller that they are facing a life or death emergency there is a procedure in place to have somebody stay on the life — but only if that’s identified before disconnecting to take the next urgent call.”

Vancouver 911 operator Sheldon Miller said, “the staffing problem has become so bad that we don’t have enough people to staff the phones so we’re having to put people on hold or disconnect them entirely.”

“Us operators are having to disconnect calls without knowing if the person got through to an ambulance — it’s traumatic.”

sarahgrochowski@postmedia.com


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