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E-Comm seeking inflationary funding hike after chaotic summer

After a summer that saw emergency responders and dispatchers struggle to keep up with demand—particularly during the heat dome—E-Comm is seeking just an inflationary budget increase this year.

The agency, which handles 911 calls for the Lower Mainland, sought an increase of 2.5% in its funding from Metro Vancouver for 2022. The increase would take E-Comm to a total budget of $4.7 million for the year, compared to $4.6 million last year.

And for the years following, the emergency dispatcher service is similarly predicting annual increases of 2.5% through to 2026.

Scientists say the heat dome’s intensity was almost certainly a direct result of human-caused climate change. And extreme weather events like it are expected to increase in severity and frequency as the globe continues to heat.

This comes after a summer in which emergency services came under intense public scrutiny for its handling of the heat dome, which left hundreds dead in the province.

The BC Ambulance Service took the most significant backlash, with response times of up to eight hours for “any but the highest acuity medical calls,” according to Burnaby Fire Chief Chris Bowcock, in a June 29 email to Mayor Mike Hurley.

That email, obtained by Burnaby Beacon through a freedom of information request, also noted difficulties on the part of E-Comm dispatchers, however.

Bowcock wrote that the service was “currently not able to address the 911 call volume load it is receiving from the public for calls for assistance.”

And in a September meeting, public safety director Dave Critchley told council trouble with dispatch was “one of the challenges that we’ve had.”

“[What] we need to prepare for is what happens when E-Comm isn’t answering the phone. And that’s a significant piece,” Critchley said at the time.

Hurley noted in an interview last week that, with his experience as a firefighter, he’s been around emergency services “for a long time.”

Asked whether the budget increase sought by E-Comm was enough, Hurley noted many of the delays appeared to be a result of BC Ambulance Service delays.

Dispatchers have a policy of staying on the line with callers until emergency services, like paramedics, arrive on the scene. But according to E-Comm documents released to the BC Liberals, the service considered abandoning that practice during the heat dome.

And it isn’t just during the record-breaking heat wave that the service struggled. E-Comm has warned of wait times due to increased call volumes as recently as last week.

And E-Comm emails from before the heat dome warned the government of paramedic shortages.

Burnaby still has its own dispatch centre, and Hurley said other cities are, “in my opinion, over-reliant on E-Comm.” And the city wants to set up a way for residents to call that dispatch centre if they’re experiencing long wait times with E-Comm.

“We haven’t fully bought into the E-Comm model yet, and I don’t know if we ever will,” Hurley said.

“Outside of what happened during the heat dome, we’re having many complaints about how calls are being answered and delivered. So that’s something that we’re going to try and deal with within the structure of E-Comm.”

Asked for specifics on the complaints levelled against E-Comm, Hurley said people “are getting frustrated” with the hold times for non-emergency calls.

“I think perhaps E-Comm has overestimated what they can deliver,” Hurley said. “They’re not going out there asking for any new business at this time, I’m told, but I think they’ve over-extended themselves, personally.”

As for the records released by the BC Liberals, Hurley said it’s “all politics.”

“At the end of the day, there is an issue with how emergency response is being delivered, but people have known about this for years and years and years,” Hurley said.

“So there’s lots of blame to go around.”

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