911 call wait times increase in GTA as industry faces 'chronic staffing shortages,' higher call volumes
A person types on their smartphone. (Shutterstock/CNN)
Published Friday, August 25, 2023 3:42PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, August 26, 2023 9:02AM EDT
While driving home from work in Mississauga on the evening of July 27, Zeza Barros came upon a grim scene.
She said she was heading northbound on Dundas Street, near Dixie Road, when she witnessed a collision unfold between a motorcyclist and the driver of a car who was attempting to make a left turn.
Barros said she immediately pulled over and ran to see if she could help the wounded motorcyclist, who had sustained severe injuries.
“It was just horrible what happened to this gentleman,” she told CP24.com.
She said minutes after the crash, at around 6:06 p.m., she tried calling 911.
“I couldn’t get through,” she said. “I kept trying and trying. Normally I mean we know 911 as the number you call and the first ring, somebody is at the other end, answering your call. No one was answering. I was getting a busy signal or I was getting a message that nobody was available.”
As more people arrived on scene, she said they too began to call 911 but were unable to get anyone on the phone.
“I mean we are all in shock of what’s happened and in a panic. We can’t do anything for this gentleman that is laying there and we are all trying to get through to 911,” Barros said.
“I would hang up and redial and get the same thing and hang up and redial.”
She said at the same time she received a call back from 911, about nine minutes later, she could hear fire trucks approaching.
“When they called me… they mentioned multiple other people had called about this incident,” she said.
“All they said is they are on their way.”
The motorcyclist was quickly taken away in an ambulance but police later confirmed that he did not survive the crash.
“He was losing a lot of blood,” Barros said.
Peel police told CP24.com that the first call they received about the crash was at 6:05 p.m., a minute before Barros first called 911. The communications centre answered that call within 66 seconds and emergency crews were immediately dispatched, police said.
“After this first call, the communications centre received calls from nine additional cell phone numbers reporting this collision within a short time frame,” Peel police said.
According to police, between 6 p.m. and 6:15 p.m., the communications centre received 82 calls to 911, which they described as “well above average for this time period.” They said in addition to the crash, they received an “influx of calls regarding other incidents in the region.”
GTA police services seeing influx of 911 calls
In recent months, police services in the GTA have said that they are experiencing a spike in call volumes to their 911 communications centres, including Peel Region.
Peel police said in 2022, there was a 27 per cent increase in 911 calls, marking the “most significant increase in call volumes to date.”
The communications centre receives about 1,800 calls each day and about 40 per cent are “non-legitimate,” or accidental, police said.
Collisions on major roadways often generate numerous calls to 911 in a short period of time.
A spokesperson for Peel Regional Police urged people contacting 911 to stay on the line until the call is answered.
They said when people repeatedly call 911, hang up, and call back, it “quickly creates a bottleneck, which results in call answer delays.”
“If a caller hangs up on 911, they will receive a call back after the call takers have answered all live calls. The hang-up calls go into a secondary queue. It is important for callers to stay on the line and wait for a 911 call taker to answer their call,” the spokesperson said.
Toronto police also said they have been dealing with an increase in 911 call wait times due to an increase in the number of calls to its emergency communications centre.
“As the largest and busiest communications centre in Canada, our 911 call centre receives more than 2 million calls annually, over 1 million of them 911 calls. Like many police services across North America, the Toronto Police Service is experiencing an increase in our 911 wait times,” Toronto police said in a written statement to CP24.com.
“In anticipation of expected increases, we adjust our staffing, but there are events that we cannot anticipate that result in spikes of calls to 911.”
In June, the Toronto Police Service urged people to adjust emergency settings on their mobile devices following an “exponential increase” in accidental 911 calls.
According to police, the service’s 911 call centre, which receives calls to both 911 and its non-emergency line, received about 6,500 calls per day in May, up from 5,200 in 2022. Police said nearly 70 per cent of those were calls to 911 and almost 50 per cent were accidental.
To help free up 911 operators, the Toronto Police Service said it recently introduced text notifications to respond to some hang up calls, asking that the person call back if there is an emergency.
Kerry Murray-Bates, the manager of Toronto's 911 communication centre, said staffing shortages and higher call volumes have led to a “slight rise” in the overall average wait time on 911.
“In January of this year, our average wait time on 911 was 25 seconds,” she told CP24.com. That is up from just 13 seconds in January 2022.
As of Aug. 22, she said the service saw an average wait time of 1:14 seconds for the month, up from 43 seconds last August.
“Summer is a very busy time for us,” she said. “Year-to-date, so far we have an average wait time on 911 of 51 seconds.” The overall average wait time on 911 in 2022 was 36 seconds.
It should be noted that the police service only provided statistics on call wait times for active calls. No information was provided about the average time it takes for operators to call back someone who did not remain on the line.
‘Chronic staffing shortages’ seen across the industry
“We are experiencing, the industry itself is experiencing similar situations regardless of are where you go. We are getting increased call volumes, increased 911 calls to be specific. We are having staffing shortages and difficulty hiring and difficulty recruiting,” Murray-Bates said.
“Then the retention piece. It is really difficult work and we are having difficulty finding people that want to do this work for a longer period of time.”
In a 2021 report by Toronto’s auditor general on 911 call centre operations, there was a recommendation to increase staffing and Toronto police have been working to boost the number of operators at its 911 communications centre.
Operators undergo intensive training for 18 months before they are able to work in the field and Murray-Bates said the service tries to stay on top of recruitment.
She said she will be running a new training session in October as well as two or three more next year. Each of these classes will have 24 trainees, she added.
“The new trainees are not all successful. We are sitting right now at about a 65 per cent success rate. The job is really hard. It is not for everyone,” she said.
“It is very demanding. Our training is long and it is exhausting and there really isn’t a big margin of error because of the work that we do.”
Holly Barkwell, the Canadian Region Director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), told CP24.com that Toronto’s experience is not unique.
Agencies around the world have been dealing with “chronic staffing shortages” and increases in call wait times, Barkwell said.
“It was bad before COVID (but) COVID kind of decimated the industry because the demands placed on existing people,” she said.
“In agencies they work in teams of generally four of five people, which are called platoons, and during COVID, if one person in the platoon tested positive then the entire platoon had to isolate, which meant there was an extra burden placed on other staff.”
She said that led to “a lot of burnout” and prompted staff to leave the industry for good.
“Agencies are struggling to fill those positions right now and they were understaffed before,” she added.
This has led to increased wait times, she said.
While NENA’s standards suggest that 90 per cent of 911 calls should be answered in 15 seconds and 95 per cent should be answered in 20 seconds, there are no federal regulations regarding 911 calls in the country.
She said while this has been accepted as a benchmark for most agencies in the country, there are a number of reasons why call takers cannot regularly meet this standard.
“First and foremost is sometimes the volume of calls coming into a centre simply exceeds the capacity of the people that are manning those positions to answer them all in a timely fashion,” she said.
New technology could provide more tools: NENA
Barkwell said 911 communications centres are also hampered by outdated technology.
“One of the issues we have in Canada and in North America is the 911 system is currently operating on an antiquated infrastructure. The current 911 system is operating on 40-plus-year-old technology and it has worked really well but it is obsolete,” she said.
“The country is right now in the midst of switching that technology base which will allow us to add new tools to help.”
She said the situation in the industry is unlikely to improve in the near future.
“From a NENA perspective, we hear from agencies everyday about the challenges that we are facing with staffing, the challenges we are facing with retention and burnout, with trying to keep people in the industry,” Barkwell said.
“All the statistics that we have now suggests that it is going to get worse yet because we haven’t managed to find a model that takes people into account so that we can give them a working environment that meets their needs from a personal and professional perspective. For example, remote work.”
She said there is some hope that working conditions will improve with the new technology platform, which must be rolled out across the country by March 2025.
“By that time, we should be in a better position to start addressing some of these other potential solutions, which will improve service across the board,” she said.
When asked about the length of time Barros waited to receive a call back, both Barkwell and Murray-Bates said that it is uncommon for someone to wait nine minutes.
“It is unusual for that length of time but increased call times are becoming problematic across the board,” Barkwell noted.
Murray-Bates said collisions can often temporarily balloon call wait times for a short period.
“Nine minutes is a long time but having said that, sometimes with a car crash, certainly on a major roadway… one collision can add 100 calls to our queue,” she said.
Speaking to CP24.com, Barros conceded that while her call may not have made a difference to the overall outcome, being able to speak to emergency services on the phone would have helped alleviate some of the panic she was feeling.
“Not to be able to talk to anybody and say this is what’s happening,” she said. “It goes through my mind every night. It’s like, what could we have done?”