Who you gonna call? - The Orca

Who you gonna call?

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: BC’s 911 system is on the verge of collapse. The question is what the NDP government will do about it.

As horrific stories of wait times for BC ambulances continue to pile up, the president of the agency that handles almost all of BC’s 911 calls has made an impassioned appeal to MLAs to change the system.

Oliver Grüter-Andrew, president and CEO of E-Comm, appeared before a legislature committee studying policing reforms during the Thanksgiving break week, and hit politicians with a clear message on behalf of 911 call-takers at his agency, as well as those for BC Ambulance Service.

“I will tell you that our people are at a breaking point,” he said. “For the sake of the public and for the sake of the ‘first first-responders,’ the people who answer the phone and try and get help, we need to see change.”

The appeal comes as Health Minister Adrian Dix tries to reform BC Ambulance, where the bottleneck is occurring due to staffing shortages, burnout, a record-high number of calls, and the ongoing opioid overdose crisis.

The public has been hearing horror stories of the collapse of the 911 system for months. A Saanichton woman who felt intense pressure in her head and lost her hearing at a grocery store recently, but had to take a cab to the hospital after spending minutes on hold at 911 with no progress. An 11-hour wait for an ambulance to a fire station to pick up an elderly person during the heat wave. Wait times of as high as 13 minutes earlier this month just to get transferred to an ambulance dispatcher, let alone get in the queue for an actual ambulance to arrive.

“The situation is that there is a higher than anticipated, higher than ever before number of ambulance calls coming into 911,” Grüter-Andrew told MLAs.

“I will tell you that our people are at a breaking point,”

“So callers requesting ambulance service. Part of that is that the Ambulance Service itself has difficulties receiving and processing all these calls. That’s well established.”

The delays are not at E-Comm itself, which is the company contracted to answer most of BC’s initial 911 calls and ask if a person needs police, fire or ambulance, said Grüter-Andrew. It’s what happens next, as the call is sent to be dispatched under a patchwork system of numerous fire and police services, as well as a beleaguered and collapsing ambulance service.

“The handoff to the Ambulance Service call taker can take significantly longer than it historically takes,” he said. “Instead of being seconds, as it typically takes, it can be minutes. It can be many minutes.”

The E-Comm call-taker is obliged to stay on the line, but has no medical training and can’t give medical advice to the frantic person waiting for an ambulance. That ties up a call-taker, and increases the backlog for other calls to police, fire and ambulance, including “non-essential” call wait times of up to 40 minutes.

“So the whole situation right now is very much compounding, and it’s very much affecting all emergency services — police, fire and ambulance,” said Grüter-Andrew.

In addition to more funding for ambulances, he said the antiquated, confusing and patchwork system of 911 calls in BC in general needs to be tackled by the government.

BC law currently requires 27 different regional districts to figure out how to answer and process 911 calls, and contract it out accordingly. On top of that, there’s 73 police agencies and 40 different fire departments that E-Comm dispatches, with specific dispatch policies set in their communities as well as abrupt geographic borders in Metro Vancouver where calls vary by community.

The antiquated, confusing and patchwork system of 911 calls in BC in general needs to be tackled.

“Making positive change in a fragmented system like this, where key elements are provincially owned, such as the BC Ambulance Service, and other elements are municipally owned…. Some elements are local government and regional district owned… It becomes very, very difficult, I would say nigh impossible, to move that,” said Grüter-Andrew.

“You have to really look at the whole enter and flow of emergency communication.”

He called on the BC government to take 911 responsibility away from regional governments and set one provincial-level authority for 911 policy and standards.

Then, the government should establish one provincial call-taking and dispatch authority, he said. That’s on top of the already-announced BC Ambulance reforms.

Dix has already said it will take time to hire and train more paramedics and dispatchers, as well as convert part-time ambulance stations across BC to 24/7 services. Part of it is historical underfunding by both his and the previous BC Liberal government.

The Ambulance Paramedics union said the government’s new measures will be insufficient. Premier John Horgan has simply deemed the situation “not acceptable” and left it to Dix.

Grüter-Andrew said he’s sympathetic to the ambulance dispatchers, who are trying their best amid an unprecedented situation. But the system as a whole is on the verge of collapse.

“I will tell you that the need to reform the system that we’re in and to make some changes to some of the funding, frankly, as well, is burning, because our people are burning out, and I fear that we will lose so many of them,” he said.

“The system will fall apart even further if we don’t address that.”

It’s already falling apart. The only question is whether the government will act to stop it in time.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.