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‘Understaffed and underfunded’: E-Comm struggling to meet demand for B.C. 911 calls

Staff shortages and increased call volumes straining E-Comm’s resources
E-Comm says the organization is understaffed and underfunded while facing a record level of calls for service. (E-Comm photo)

As B.C. prepares for another wildfire season, staffing levels at E-Comm 911 remain strained.

Staffing has been a long-standing challenge for E-Comm, with the organization commissioning a report in 2021 that recommended hiring at least 125 full-time staffers to meet demand.

Jasmine Bradley, executive director of communications and public affairs with E-Comm, said the organization is still struggling to bring on staff.

“Like many other 911 centres across the country, E-Comm is experiencing staffing challenges in terms of the tight labour market. We’re having a challenging time filling vacancies in our call-taking dispatch operations.”

But recruitment challenges are only one factor resulting in increased 911 call wait times. Bradley said that call volumes have increased sharply, especially with extreme weather events in 2021. Despite the reprieve in natural disasters wracking B.C., E-Comm’s call volumes haven’t slowed down.

“So far this year we’ve seen close to a 12 per cent increase in 911 calls coming through compared to 2021. And as we head into the busier summer months, these call volumes are expected to continue to increase as our province prepares for its first summer without COVID restrictions in two years.”

READ MORE: New 911 system aims to increase number of calls E-Comm operators can take

E-Comm staff are experiencing high levels of stress and burnout. Bradley said E-Comm has “a number of staff” on leave, though she did not provide an exact figure. Staff are on leave for standard reasons like parental leave or WCB, but E-Comm has also faced COVID-related absences and requests for stress leave.

“Overall, E-Comm’s existing funding model does not meet our current resourcing needs leaving our organization both understaffed and underfunded,” Bradley said.

Primarily, E-Comm call takers are the first point of contact asking callers if they need police, fire or ambulance. Call-takers then transfer calls to the appropriate agency. E-Comm also handles emergency and non-emergency call-taking dispatch services for 73 police and fire departments in B.C.

Calls for ambulances are handled by the B.C. Emergency Health Service. There are police and fire agencies in B.C. that handle their own dispatch.

E-Comm is not funded at all by the provincial government. E-Comm’s 911 services are contracted by 25 regional districts across B.C. and are funded primarily through property taxes.

Costs for call-taking and dispatch services contracted to individual police and fire departments are determined on what E-Comm says is a “complex formula”. That formal accounts for the number of radio channels required by an agency, the volume of emergency calls and non-emergency calls received on their behalf and many other factors, such as call complexity and population changes.

Some police departments, like the Vancouver Police have blamed E-Comm for non-emergency calls going unanswered. A report released by the VPD in April found 40.5 per cent of non-emergency calls were going unanswered.

READ MORE: ‘Public safety issue’: 40% of non-emergency calls in Vancouver going unanswered

Bradley said that is due to staffing issues, increased call volumes and many callers using the non-emergency line inappropriately.

“We’re asking people to only call the non-emergency line if you’re unable to make the report online and before calling to really make sure that what you’re wanting to report is a police issue. E-Comm estimates that close to 40 per cent of the non-emergency calls that our staff answer actually end up being redirected elsewhere.”

Callers should not use RCMP non-emergency lines to ask for information on things like power outages, road closures or bylaw issues.

Ultimately, the challenges facing E-Comm are unlikely to change any time soon.

“These are all conversations that we’re having with our partners to look at longer-term what our funding needs are and what our resourcing needs are in order to provide British Columbians with the best possible service.”

READ MORE: B.C. 911 calls surge with tips, complaints after Amber Alert issued


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