Toronto's 911 service needs more staff to answer calls faster, audit says

·4 min read
An operator answers calls at Toronto's 911 communication centre. An report by the city's auditor general says the centre must hire more operators to address the problem of long wait times.  (Pelin Sidki/CBC - image credit)
An operator answers calls at Toronto's 911 communication centre. An report by the city's auditor general says the centre must hire more operators to address the problem of long wait times. (Pelin Sidki/CBC - image credit)

Toronto's 911 call centre failed to meet its minimum standard for answering calls almost every day last year, and must hire more operators to offset its staffing shortages, according to the city's auditor general.

Call volume and staffing problems were at the heart of delays which saw at least 13,260 callers wait more than a minute to be answered in 2021, and at least 424 callers wait more than four minutes, according to an audit of the call centre, released Wednesday.

The centre, which is run by the Toronto Police Service (TPS), "should ensure more available and/or deployable staff are in place, particularly during peak period times," to reduce wait times, wrote Auditor General Beverly Romeo-Beehler.

The centre's minimum standard is to answer 90 per cent of all 911 calls within 15 seconds.

"Other strategies are needed to minimize staff sick time, injured on duty, overtime, and to improve the recruitment process, retention, and the health and wellbeing of the communications operators."

The report makes 26 recommendations, including establishing new minimum staffing requirements, developing data systems to better understand and improve performance, creating public awareness campaigns about when to call 911, and establishing a 911 levy to help modernize the city's emergency services.

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TPS management agreed with all of the recommendations, and said it's working on making improvements but is limited by financial resources.

A levy would require new legislation from the province. Ontario and Manitoba are the only provinces which don't currently charge a monthly levy for 911 services. The audit says a levy of one dollar per cellphone user in Toronto could bring in an estimated $28.8 million a year.

A CBC News investigation earlier this year revealed that the city's long 911 wait times are more than one-offs. Reports, emails and snapshots of the centre's call queue painted a picture of an emergency service struggling to retain staff amid burnout-fuelled shortages, while serving a city of nearly three million people.

One operator said the centre is not fulfilling its duty to the public.

"We all took this job to help people, we all took this job to answer your call, to be there — and we can't do it," the operator said.

The report found average longest wait times to answer calls were between three and four minutes in 2018, 2019 and 2021, with dipping slightly to two to three minutes in 2020.

WATCH | Call centre failing the public, operator says:

From 2018 through 2021 the centre, which also takes non-emergency calls, received an average of about 5,000 calls per day, almost 3,000 of which were for 911.

During peak volume periods the audit also found examples when the number of call takers fell below the minimum requirement for that time period — with only six, out of the required 13, operators working.

Staffing issues meant overtime was needed almost every day. In 2019, the call centre paid overtime 361 days of the year, and 356 days in 2020.

There were only three days from 2018 through 2021 with no staff absences, and the number of call takers off sick ranged from one to 32 on any given day.

Last year alone, 37 of more than 200 operators resigned from the call centre.

'Absolutely terrifying'

Samantha Goldsilver knows first hand what it's like to face a wait time with an emergency call. Last month she was shopping with her daughter when the 13-year-old suddenly fainted and collapsed.

Angelina King/CBC
Angelina King/CBC

"When we called for help, we were put on hold, which was one of the most terrifying moments of my life, just something that I wouldn't wish on anybody," said Goldsilver.

A volunteer paramedic organization happened to be there and sprang into action. In the end, her daughter was OK, but the experience left Goldsilver shaken.

"It's absolutely terrifying and scary to think that this is going on all over the city," she said.

"Someone is actually going to lose their life because they're on hold and that's not acceptable in Toronto."

Goldsilver thinks more hiring and public awareness on when to call 911 could help.

More than half not emergencies

The audit found 57 per cent of calls made to the centre between July 2018 and July 2021 were for non-emergencies.

About 18 per cent of those were hang ups, three per cent were pocket dials, 12 per cent were not for police or emergency services, 14 per cent were asking for advice, and 10 per cent were for non-emergencies without imminent or potential danger or injury.

"Public awareness and education need to increase, which in turn should help to reduce the volume of 911 calls that are not an emergency or police matter and may also decrease the demand for front-line police resourcing," reads the report.

The audit will go before the Toronto Police Service Board on June 22, after which both Toronto interim police Chief James Ramer and the Toronto Police Association said they'd provide further response.

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