The Burnaby Fire Department says it was hindered by a lack of staffing at E-Comm during this year's heat dome. (Shutterstock)

The 911 system ‘completely failed’ Burnaby during heat dome: mayor

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley says the city needs to 'learn to stand on our own' for future catastrophic climate events and earthquakes after broadly criticized BC Ambulance response to heat dome

By Dustin Godfrey | September 28, 2021 |5:00 am

The City of Burnaby is going to have to improve its emergency response services during catastrophic events like this year’s heat dome because it can’t rely on provincial services, Mayor Mike Hurley said.

The comments came in yesterday’s meeting, in which staff presented council with a report on the city’s extreme heat initial response guideline and ways it can be improved.

The report specifically looked at the three heatwaves BC experienced this past summer, including the intense heat dome of late June/early July and two later heatwaves.

Scientists broadly agree that the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and other extreme weather events are directly related to climate change. These events will get worse in the coming decades.

Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities had morbidity forecasting for the extreme heat. But the city report, compiled by the public safety department, said those forecasts “dramatically underestimated how many people could die during the heat dome.”

The health authorities suggested an excess of 10 deaths per day in the Fraser Health region.

During the heat dome, 569 people are believed to have died as a result of the weather, making it the deadliest weather event in Canadian history. Of those, 49% were in the Fraser Health region, “a 363% increase over the modelled estimate.”

Burnaby Beacon filed a freedom of information request with Fraser Health regarding the heat dome. The deadline for that request was unilaterally moved back by the health authority to Sept 27.

Fraser Health did not meet its deadline.

Ambulance waits, 911 on hold

For the city, the event has brought up a new question: can it hold its own in an increasingly hazardous environment, as catastrophic events become more likely with climate change?

The heat dome brought record-breaking temperatures, with the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada in Lytton multiple days in a row.

The province has since been heavily criticized for the preparedness of the BC Emergency Health Services, which critics have said is vastly under-resourced.

Indeed, Burnaby Fire Department emails obtained by the Beacon refer to “excessive delays in the arrival of BCAS [BC Ambulance Services] crews to many incidents.”

“Dispatch personnel faced heavy workloads and experienced stressful situations,” said deputy fire chief Dave Samson in a June 30 email to all fire staff.

"It was another lesson that, during times of big emergencies, we’re going to have to learn to stand on our own for six, seven days."

Photo: Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon

And in a June 29 update to Mayor Mike Hurley, fire Chief Chris Bowcock said his understanding was that paramedics could not “provide any medical response for a period of some 5-8 hours to any but the highest acuity medical calls.”

But it wasn’t just the paramedics who were understaffed.

“I was going to be somewhat crass: the assistance from E-Comm, we need them to answer the phone,” said public safety director Dave Critchley of the provincial service that manages 911 calls and dispatch.

“Although that might sound a little glib, I couldn’t be more succinct. And that’s one of the challenges that we’ve had, obviously, and we need to prepare for, is what happens when E-Comm isn’t answering the phone. And that’s a significant piece.”

In Bowcock’s June 29 update to the mayor, he noted that E-Comm was “currently not able to address the 911 call volume load it is receiving from the public for calls for assistance.”

“As a result, it is understood that Burnaby fire dispatch is not receiving all the calls for assistance that are made within the city, which has and may continue to result in response from fire crews not being provided solely on the basis that we have not been provided the event,” Bowcock wrote.

“Additionally, Burnaby fire dispatch is receiving notification from BCAS dispatchers outside of the automated dispatching system via direct phone calls.”

‘Our 911 system completely failed us’

In response to the high call volume, the fire department increased its dispatch from two staffers to three, a move Critchley praised in council.

Critchley’s statement was in response to a question from Burnaby Citizens’ Association Coun. Alison Gu, who asked if data from E-Comm and emergency responders could be overlaid on a map to see where there was more need.

Critchley said the city would “absolutely” be seeking more data from E-Comm to understand where fatalities were concentrated. He said that information can be used to help identify community groups that emergency services need to reach out to proactively in events that follow.

BCA Coun. Sav Dhaliwal called the event a “wake-up call for all of us,” as climate change continues to make events like these far more frequent and intense.

“The event is going to be repeating again, probably more frequently than we dare to believe,” Dhaliwal said.

He added that it’s a call to action for the city to both reduce carbon emissions and improve the city’s resilience to extreme weather.

Hurley agreed that the event was a wake-up call, but he said it’s not just climate-related events that this applies to.

“Our 911 system completely failed us during this time. It was another lesson that, during times of big emergencies, we’re going to have to learn to stand on our own for six, seven days. We really need to prepare for that,” Hurley said.

“At some point, we will have an earthquake, and we do have to keep preparing for that, and this is part of that.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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