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Health minister says B.C. is hiring more dispatchers, paramedics amid E-Comm 911 controversy

B.C.’s health minister is assuring the public the province is working to address staffing shortages, days after E-Comm announced changes to the way 9-1-1 calls for ambulance service will be handled.

“The possibility of being put on hold is for non-life threatening illness and essentially it doesn’t change when the response will be, it just means they’ll be on hold for some time. That’s a decision that’s made by E-Comm because they want to provide better service on police and fire,” Adrian Dix explained Friday, echoing messaging from E-Comm itself, which noted if a caller has an immediately life-threatening situation, they will be fast-tracked to ambulance.

The health minister says B.C. has already made a number of hires, in the wake of staffing shortages earlier this year that were leading to a potential breaking point, as per the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC.

“We’ve hired 85 full-time paramedics as of November 30th, 2021 in metro areas such as Vancouver, North Vancouver, Port Moody, Burnaby, Surrey, Langley, Richmond, Abbotsford, Kamloops, and Prince George. We said we’d hire 30 full-time dispatchers and we’ve in fact hired 65,” Dix explained, adding “we’re responding by meeting the need, by adding dispatchers.”

He promised more staff were coming.

Dix’s comments come more than a day after outrage from the call takers’ union over the changes that will see operators no longer wait on the line with the caller until ambulance dispatchers pick up.

Oliver Grüter-Andrew, president and CEO of E-Comm, assures people call takers have a script to follow when directing 9-1-1 calls.

“BC Ambulance has given us some questions to ask the caller about their medical condition, and those are also repeated on an automated message played to the caller by the BC Ambulance Service while everybody is waiting for the ambulance service to pick up,” Grüter-Andrew explained.

He assures if a caller has an immediately life-threatening situation, the operator is able to accelerate that call through a priority line.

Grüter-Andrew claims the service has already seen such calls be picked up “very fast.”

“In fact, within a few seconds,” he said.

The Emergency Communications Professionals of BC said this week that abandoning people during their time of need is unacceptable.

“That’s a dramatic change from what used to happen. 9-1-1 operators are that safety blanket that’s there monitoring the line while you’re in the transfer,” said CUPE Local 8911 President Donald Grant.

While Grüter-Andrew doesn’t refute that staying on the line until the ambulance service picks up is a good practice, he admits there are resource issues at the moment.

“And as we all know, the BC Ambulance Service has been struggling due to demand over the last several months to process the calls coming in. Typically, that happens really fast — within a few seconds. But it’s taken minutes, and in some cases many minutes — up to 30 minutes — for somebody to pick up the call at ambulance.”

Grüter-Andrew says an operator staying on the line with a caller while they wait for ambulance to pick up ties up a resources that could otherwise get to other emergency calls.

“We’ve seen significant periods of build up of 9-1-1 calls. The longest delay that I am aware of is 17 minutes for someone to hear ‘Do you need police, fire, or ambulance?’ And 70 per cent of calls coming into 9-1-1 are for police and fire, not for ambulance. So there could be anything sitting in those minutes and minutes of calls waiting, violent assaults, homes on fire, that nobody can get to,” he told CityNews.

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Once staffing issues are resolved, Grüter-Andrew believes operations can go back to the old process.

E-Comm dispatches calls for 33 police stations and 40 fire departments in B.C., the union says.

It claims the “the E-Comm 9-1-1 system is at risk of catastrophic failure due to severe staffing shortages caused by a lack of funding.”

At times, some British Columbians have reported waiting as long as 30 minutes on hold with operators after calling 9-1-1.

During the summer’s heatwaves, wait times for ambulances also skyrocketed, sometimes as long as hours.

When asked if he could commit that B.C. could avoid similar delays in the event of another heat wave, Dix assured the province’s commitment was to do so “every day.”

“Not just in the most serious circumstances, exceptional circumstances that had been once in 200 years and now are just once in one year. So we have to meet that test. But it’s also the test every day,” he explained.

Dix admits, however, that E-Comm isn’t just dealing with increased calls over weekends and periods like the heat dome, but rather that calls have gone up across the board.

“We had the third-highest day of ambulance calls in the history of the BC Emergency Health Services in the first week of June. This wasn’t the heat dome, it was the first week of June. It was in third place behind what was New Year’s Eve 2017 and New Year’s Eve 2018, which were the previous record holders. Obviously, those records have been broken now.”

-With files from Claire Fenton

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