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.

A call taker at E-Comm’s Lower Mainland emergency communications centre answering emergency calls for help from members of the public.

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.”

Stephen Thatcher,
E-Comm vice-president of Operations
Service Illustration Clip