Issue No. 1 | Spring 2022
Focused on the future togetherREAD ARTICLE
Perseverance through a challenging year for emergency communicationsREAD ARTICLE
Using the right supports to build a resilient teamREAD ARTICLE
Innovating emergency communications for a safer British ColumbiaREAD ARTICLE
Help Us Help: Protecting our province’s emergency resourcesREAD ARTICLE
Strengthening public safety across British ColumbiaREAD ARTICLE
A lot has happened at a global level since the final edition of e-communiqué, E-Comm’s previous external newsletter, was published almost three years ago. At that time, we announced E-Comm’s strategic plan, (a)SPIRE 2025, focused on resiliency and innovation. It was intentionally created to be flexible so our organisation could adapt its priorities based on the changing landscapes directly impacting the field of public safety, like those we have experienced over the past few years.
Together, British Columbia’s emergency services community has navigated a multi-year global pandemic, new pressures on policing in our communities caused by changing social dynamics and huge strain on emergency health and rescue services resulting from extreme weather events. There is no denying that it has been a trying time for our organisation, as well as for our first responder partners and the public who rely on emergency services to be available when they need them.
Last year, E-Comm received more than 2 million calls from British Columbians needing emergency assistance from police, fire or ambulance—the highest call volume we have seen in our almost 23 year history. These volumes reflect both the increasing demand on emergency services across B.C. and of the changing complexity of the emergencies being responded to.
E-Comm’s mission is to deliver exceptional emergency communications to both the public and to first responders. There were times in 2021 where our 9-1-1 call-answer and police call-taking services did not live up to these high standards—particularly in the Lower Mainland where we continue to suffer from staffing and funding shortages.
The work of our staff is critical to the safety of British Columbians and our first responder partners. And this work cannot stop while we determine the longer term path forward through these service level and resourcing challenges. Instead, our dedicated team of emergency communications professionals must remain focused on getting B.C.’s public the help they need in the short term from police, fire and ambulance, while leadership focuses on the broader business transformation required to stabilize the organisation.
At the same time, E-Comm’s board and leadership team acknowledge a need to evolve our operations to meet the increased demands being placed on our organisation. This work is well underway, and extensive reviews of our service delivery model and police communications operations have been conducted. Investments are being made to increase the capacity of our emergency communications centres, both through recruitment of new staff and by finding new ways to answer calls from the public to get them the help they need. Our commitment is to provide the best possible service to the communities we serve, and together, we will continue to work with our partner agencies to ensure we achieve this commitment.
This new bi-annual E-Comm Insider newsletter will serve as one of the many ways we keep you apprised of these strategic activities headed into the future. I look forward to keeping you informed and providing further updates in the issues to come.
President & CEO
Perseverance through a challenging year for emergency communications
Forest fires, floods, excessive heat and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 resulted in unusually and historically high 9-1-1 call volumes in B.C. Through unprecedented demand and service level challenges, E-Comm staff remained on the frontlines of emergency communications around the clock—connecting British Columbians with the police, fire or ambulance services they need in an emergency.
E-Comm’s service level target is to answer 95 per cent of 9-1-1 calls in five seconds or less. For 22 years, E-Comm maintained and exceeded this target. However, as call volumes rose dramatically over the summer with the excessive heat and continued into the fall with record flooding and delays in transferring calls to the ambulance service, E-Comm’s 9-1-1 service levels fell below target for the first time in the organization’s history.
“Exceptional strain on emergency services with an increasing demand like I have never before witnessed, coupled with our own short staffing and resourcing challenges, led to service delivery challenges in the second part of 2021,” explains Stephen Thatcher, E-Comm vice-president of Operations. “Not only did this have a huge impact on our staff, but it also heavily impacts our partner agencies as well. Recognizing this, these are challenges that we continue to work closely with our partners to resolve.”
In terms of 9-1-1 call volume, Thatcher says 2021 was an extraordinarily challenging year with nine out of the 10 busiest days in E-Comm’s history occurring last year. During the heat dome that blanketed B.C. in July, 9-1-1 call volumes soared to 8,000 calls on some days, almost doubling the 5,000 daily call average seen in 2020. As British Columbia continues to experience ongoing health crises and another unusually warm summer is forecasted, this increased need for emergency response is not expected to lessen.
“With call volumes in 2022 already higher than in previous years, it is imperative we recognize the need to change the way we provide services to our partners, and to the public. This means we need to find new ways to help the public understand who to call when they need help, we need to provide more self-service access to members of the public willing to use online tools, and we need to increase our efficiency to better the experience of the public who are helped over the phone,” says Thatcher.
E-Comm is using the lessons learned over the past year to improve recruitment and training of 9-1-1 call-taking and dispatch staff. This is in addition to the innovative uses of technology and public education to help reduce wait times moving forward, particularly on police non-emergency lines where wait times can be longer as call takers prioritize answering emergency calls from those in life or death situations.
Summing up the 2021 experience, Thatcher praises the resilience of British Columbia’s emergency responders during a very challenging year:
“Together, we continued to deliver critical emergency response services to those who needed us. During the worst of the pressures experienced last year, we did everything possible to ensure British Columbians got the help they needed and looking ahead to what will likely be another challenging summer, this teamwork and cooperation among agencies coupled with our passion for public safety is what will continue to save lives.”
E-Comm vice-president of Operations
Using the Right Supports to Build a Resilient Team
The unique demands of working in emergency services have been exacerbated over the past few years. E-Comm’s dedicated team of emergency communications professionals take extreme pride in being able to get members of the public the help they need as quickly as possible, so it can be very challenging for them to see people in need of help waiting to have their calls answered.
When dealing with life-threatening emergencies and high-stress situations is the norm for an organization’s employees, it is critical to adapt to their evolving needs so they can be supported in the best ways possible. As an organization, E-Comm is currently exploring enhanced ways to foster and support its teams, so they can keep providing the important public safety service that they are so proud of while looking after their own mental health and physical wellbeing.
From call-taking to dispatch, an emergency communications centre can be a difficult environment to work in. It is critically important that the right people are working in these roles and, even more so, that they are receiving the right support from the organization to ensure their success. As part of E-Comm’s work in this area, finding new ways to offer realistic job previews to those interested in joining its team is a continued priority. To better prepare these new recruits for a fulfilling career in emergency communications, recent changes have been made to existing call taker onboarding and training processes. On-the-job training improvements by way of a new Peer Coach program have been instituted. Borne directly from staff feedback, this new program is meant to better coach and develop the newest members of the team.
“This new team of peer coaches focuses on transforming our approach to on-the-job training by creating a safe and learner centric environment, creating consistency and enhancing the experience for our new call takers. This is such an important milestone for E-Comm, offering not only a team dedicated to our new call takers but a valuable resource for others in the emergency communications centre to turn to as well.”
Supervisor, Coaching and Development
E-Comm is also focusing recruitment efforts on identifying a wide-range of diverse candidates who embody the right skills and motivation to provide critical frontline emergency communications services to the communities it serves. Whether hiring for Technology, Human Resources, Finance or another department, a proactive approach is being taken to attract candidates who are purpose-driven and empowered to work collaboratively on meaningful initiatives that truly make a difference.
To support employees with the demands and pressures associated to the work they do, E-Comm has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Vancouver-Fraser in adapting its Resilient MindsTM training specifically for the organization to build resiliency within teams and focus on destigmatizing the need for support. This program is being created with the understanding that the unique day-to-day challenges E-Comm staff face requires a dedicated approach to one’s overall wellness including an individual’s physical, emotional, financial and psychological wellbeing. This training will be launched in 2022 in addition to the other resources, training modules and programs that currently exist to support E-Comm staff, including the Critical Incident Stress debriefing program—an important support offered to all staff following a difficult call or stressful incident.
Efforts are also underway to ensure the organization better reflects the diverse communities it serves in British Columbia, and continues to take steps to learn in the areas of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. E-Comm recognizes that learning and unlearning biases in addition to finding new and meaningful ways to partner with community allies in areas of recruitment, learning and development, and employee engagement will help the organization evolves its culture.
As part of this work, E-Comm is committed to building safe spaces for its employees to learn and feel supported as they continue to show up for others. These transformational changes will occur through conversation, training and programs that are currently being invested in at the corporate level.
When teams are supported, E-Comm’s partners and British Columbians get the excellent service they deserve. The organization continues to seek out new ways to build the team of the future. One that is diverse, resilient and passionate about the work they do so we can work together to make British Columbia the safest province in Canada.
Innovating emergency communications for a safer British Columbia
Since its inception, E-Comm has been dedicated to using innovative technologies and practices to help in the organization’s mission of providing excellence in emergency communications to its partners and to the public.
This dates back to E-Comm’s beginnings, when the creation of the Wide-Area Radio Network offered police, fire and ambulance personnel in Metro Vancouver the critical ability to communicate directly with one another over the airwaves—a stark contrast to the early 90s when first responders all operated on separate networks. This interoperable radio system, which continues to be one of the largest of its kind in North America, was a huge innovation that forever changed the way first responders communicate with each other.
Since the beginning of the pandemic through to the organization’s ongoing service level challenges, E-Comm has strengthened its position on the need to innovate through its service delivery mandates including the technologies, tools and processes used to deliver those services. Through periods of increased demand and spiking call volumes, the ability to pivot to different workflows and new mitigation strategies play an important role in ensuring the public gets the help they need, when they need it.
“In part, excellent emergency communications services are those that adapt quickly to match the evolving needs of public safety services. Whether these changes are driven by technological or socio-economic factors, E-Comm’s technology and information management systems must keep up to meet current demand but also to fulfill the potential of future needs.”
Vice-President of Technology Services
Service outages, such as the one experienced on May 5 in the Central and Southern Interior of British Columbia, highlight the fact that B.C.’s 9-1-1 infrastructure is aging and updates are necessary to ensure this critical service is resilient and ready for use by those who need it. With that in mind, one major push for innovation in emergency communications is the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) mandated modernization of 9-1-1 services across Canada to a Next Generation 9-1-1 network. This new system will address the changing communication needs of E-Comm’s public safety partners and the public, who have become accustomed to the enhanced capabilities of smartphone technology, by changing to Internet-based networks. Internet-based networks are more adaptable to support new features, like allowing callers to communicate with 9-1-1 through real-time text messaging services—a potentially life-saving feature for someone unable to speak due to a medical concern or being in an unsafe situation—and the eventual possibility to send video to 9-1-1 as evidence obtained during an emergency situation.
In April 2021, E-Comm took the first major step in British Columbia’s transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 by successfully transferring a voice call in a proof of concept test environment. Extensive testing of this nature is important to ensure new technology is validated before implementing it in life-or-death emergency situations. E-Comm has now completed all major testing in the proof of concept environment and has begun planning the build and implementation of the system. British Columbia’s transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 is expected to begin in 2024.
While the needs of emergency callers are changing, so are the needs of E-Comm’s first responder partners. Emergency events are becoming more dynamic, increasingly drawing on additional and varied resources compared to events of the past. The need for strong situational awareness on the ground is critical for allowing emergency personnel to better understand unfolding situations and the required response.
In 2018, E-Comm’s Technology Services teams engaged with key technology partners, BC Hydro, and the BC Government in the creation of a demonstration Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN), a dedicated cellular network for first responders.
Although not intended to replace the invaluable radios used during emergency response, a PSBN allows for enhanced communications types like the transfer of rich data such as photographs or video and communication between different types of tools and devices—all of which can be key to truly understanding an emergency event and increasing situational awareness.
“It can be difficult to shift from an operational mindset to an innovative mindset, where questioning the status quo and pushing for change is encouraged,” explains Gilligan. “The challenges over the past few years have truly shown us that innovative solutions and practices are what will best position E-Comm to provide valuable services to our partners and to ensure that British Columbians know that when they dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, someone will be there to answer their call for help.”
Help Us Help: Protecting our province’s emergency resources
The 9-1-1 system as it exists today was designed to handle every day emergencies—but when the extraordinary becomes the ordinary, as British Columbians witnessed in 2021 with widespread weather events across the province and multiple ongoing health crises, this adds its own element of strain to the system. When increased demand leads to record-breaking call volumes, education becomes a key tool to help safeguard these vital resources by ensuring the public are always reaching out to the right resources for help.
While the critical role first responders and local governments play in public safety is clear, the important contributions of the general public can sometimes be overlooked. By knowing when to dial 9-1-1 and keeping these lines free for emergencies, people experiencing life or death situations can get the help they need faster. Recognizing this, E-Comm’s Communications and Public Affairs team launched the 9-1-1 Pledge during this year’s Emergency Services Dispatchers’ and 9-1-1 Awareness Week, as an important platform to not only educate the public, but also empower them to take action to protect their communities. As COVID restrictions limited events and in-person activities, the need to engage with communities on a virtual platform became more prominent. This Pledge is one of many online tools which offers British Columbians the opportunity to connect with E-Comm in a meaningful way that both educates and encourages the appropriate use of 9-1-1.
In addition to the hundreds of accidental calls E-Comm receives on emergency lines on a daily basis and the notorious nuisance calls that tie up these lines, another concerning pattern has emerged related to misuse of the police non-emergency lines. An internal study conducted in mid-2021 showed that close to 40 per cent of calls received on police non-emergency lines were not valid police matters and needed to be redirected to more appropriate resources for help. Although education efforts through E-Comm’s Make the Right Call campaign are ongoing, call takers continue to field calls that aren’t police matters. For example, E-Comm call takers field many calls that are actually more appropriate for city bylaws like calls about dumped garbage or parking concerns. E-Comm provides information on its website about these alternative resources to call for needs relating to by-law concerns, hydro enquiries and other non-police matters in an effort to ensure these lines also remain accessible to those who need them.
As events and in-person presentations resume, the opportunity for E-Comm to build relationships and trust within the communities that it serves grows. From speaking to children about learning their address to connecting with community policing partners, every chance to engage with the public means even one more person who can help share E-Comm’s public safety messaging far and wide.
After navigating three states of emergency last year, it was reinforced how integral community relationships are in helping to protect valuable emergency response resources. During weather events and service level challenges, having E-Comm’s critical messaging amplified by those who follow the organization online played a huge part in reducing call volumes and reminding the public how and when to use the system.
E-Comm may be the first point of contact for most 9-1-1 callers across British Columbia, but without its police, fire and ambulance partners, there would be no first responders to help in emergencies. And, without the community groups who help champion E-Comm and its important public safety messaging, British Columbians would not have the tools and the knowledge they need to make the right calls.
Strengthening public safety across British Columbia
In keeping with its (a)SPIRE 2025 strategic plan, E-Comm continually looks for ways to strengthen its services and deliver public safety communications matched to the emerging needs of communities across B.C. From further expanding the number of users on its multi-jurisdictional, tri-service emergency radio system, to advocating for opportunities for the public to use the 9-1-1 system to access emergency services beyond the traditional “police, fire, ambulance”, E-Comm is committed to the expansion of emergency communications across B.C.
E-Comm’s Wide-Area Radio Network has grown steadily over the years and continues to provide interoperable communications for its public safety partners. As the population in the Metro Vancouver region grows and new developments are built, E-Comm is not just increasing its capacity to add more radios, it is also expanding the radio network to provide a wider geographical footprint, allowing public safety agencies to access a common radio system to support emergency services across the province. This means a more efficient response during cases of inter-agency support in mutual aid scenarios, disaster response, police pursuits and cross municipal-border crime investigations.
Despite the pandemic, E-Comm has still been able to bring two new agency partners onto the Wide-Are Radio Network. Both the Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service and Pitt Meadows Fire & Rescue Services transitioned onto E-Comm’s radio network since 2020.
“Joining the E-Comm radio system is a critical part of keeping our first responders and the public safe in an emergency. Being able to have our first responders access and share information with each other, as quickly and efficiently as possible, will allow for better response that meets the safety needs of our community.”
Pitt Meadows Mayor
In addition to our usual expansions within the first responder community, E-Comm has also welcomed several municipal radio users in the last couple of years. Through this natural expansion of our radio technology services, critical service providers like the Vancouver Park Rangers and TransLink’s Coast Mountain Bus, who often work with emergency personnel to resolve public safety issues, are able to communicate directly with first responders during critical situations—a huge step to strengthening public safety in parks and on the transit system. As E-Comm expands its radio network, each additional transition builds a stronger ecosystem of public safety communications.
Further aligned with its mission to help saves lives and protect property, E-Comm also maintains a strong position on the need to transform 9-1-1 emergency communications to better support some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, while also offering improved assistance and communication to our police partners responding to critical situations within these communities.
Currently, when an individual calls 9-1-1 in British Columbia, they are presented with three options: police, fire or ambulance. Unless the nature of the emergency is clearly best suited for response by a fire department or ambulance, the call is most likely transferred to a police agency. Despite increasing numbers of complex social issues reported via 9-1-1, the options for addressing these varied circumstances have remained the same.
E-Comm presented to the B.C. Legislature’s Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act, in early 2021, to discuss the future of emergency communications services. The presentation, Opportunities to End Public Safety Inequities by Transforming B.C.’s 9-1-1 Emergency Communications System, highlights two opportunities: specialized emergency response services for complex social issues to be selection options when calling 9-1-1; and enhanced emergency communication centres to relieve patrol officers from routine interactions and introduce more deeply-skilled resources to help resolve police calls.
Aligned with the recommendations of the Special Committee’s mandate to make recommendations on reforms to help modernize policing in B.C., E-Comm believes there are options to be considered related to emergency communications which would assist in delivering on the committee’s mandate. These include making recommendations concerning the role of police with respect to complex social issues including mental health and wellness, addictions and harm reduction, along with addressing the issue of systemic racism within B.C. police agencies.
January 1 to March 31, 2022
Total 9-1-1 calls received
Service level achieved
Radio network availability average
Number of radio calls
Radio system air time (seconds)