911 dispatchers overwhelmed by volume of overdose calls

The union representing 911 dispatchers in B.C. is worried the fentanyl crisis is overloading staff and leading to higher levels of burnout.

Since the start of the year, there have been 755 overdose deaths in B.C. representing an increase of just over 70 per cent compared to last year — increased numbers that have resulted in a higher number of calls being made to emergency dispatchers across the province.

"We know there's been times where we're getting extra calls," said Bronwyn Barter, the president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C.

Overloaded and under-resourced

On average, the 911 service is getting about 170 overdose-related calls per day across B.C.

"They've just been overloaded," she said.

"It's just put another huge strain on a resource that was already under-resourced."

Smaller centres affected

This is having an impact on smaller centres like Kamloops because dispatchers are spending more time on the line with people.

They will often have to coach them through CPR or other life saving methods while people wait for paramedics to arrive.

"As a result of that, other calls are waiting," she said.

Barter says in some cases calls in Kamloops have been put on hold for up to three minutes before they are transferred to call centre in another region.

"That's not good because we're working in a business when minutes can make the difference between life and death," she said.

Union wants more training and staff

Barter says she'd like to see more dispatchers being put on shift and more training provided because the current situation is leading to mental health issues for some dispatchers.

"We have a lot of people who are working long hours, overtime, filling lots of shifts and they are being burnt out," she said.

"Ultimately, people are going to die or the care to them is going to be delayed which is going to have people staying in the hospital longer which is a further burden on the health care system."

The Provincial Health Services Authority which oversees 911 dispatchers says it encourages staff to make sure they are taking care of themselves. It's making a critical incident stress peer team and clinical psychologist available to staff in need of support.

"We know the increase in overdose-related calls is taking its toll on our call-takers and dispatchers as well as paramedics," said B.C. Emergency Health Services executive vice president Linda Lupini in a statement.

She says B.C. Emergency Health Services has increased staffing during peak times and is adding additional resources so call-takers are better able to take breaks.

With files from Daybreak Kamloops