Toronto 911 delays can mean the difference between life and death

By Ariana Gic

On July 6, I called 911 for a medical emergency for an infant. I was put on hold. Twice. In total, was on hold for somewhere between 3-6 minutes.

I was on hold before even speaking to an initial operator. I was put on hold again when the operator tried to connect me to the Emergency Medical Dispatch.

According to The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) Call Answering Standard/Model Recommendation, the standard for answer 911 calls is as follows:

90% of all 911 calls shall be answered within 10 seconds during the busiest call times; and 95% of all 911 calls shall be answered within 20 seconds.

It stands to reason that a call cannot be said to have been “answered” until the caller speaks to an operator. Being on hold for 1-3 minutes before finally speaking to an operator clearly and unambiguously constitutes an unreasonable delay, and a gross departure from the international accepted standard of 10-20 seconds.

An additional delay to speak to the next Public Safety Answering Point – in my case, the Emergency Medical Dispatch – is also a departure from the internationally accepted standard of care.

When seconds are precious, minutes can make the difference between life and death, or serious, irreparable harm to the person in an emergency situation. For the caller, being put on hold causes serious psychological and emotional distress during an already distressing and frightening emergency situation.

The City of Toronto has an admitted problem of understaffing for 911 operators and first responders. Both Mayor John Tory and Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders have acknowledged the delays in 911 calls are an issue.

Last August, after a shooting in the city, a source inside the 911 communication centre shared internal call volume data from the day of the incident. The numbers before and after the shooting were appalling – there were far too few operators, and the delay times for callers were upwards of seven and half minutes. Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders tasked Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon to do a high-level review of the 911 communication centre. Coxon asked the Toronto Police Services Board for approval to hire dozens of new 911 operators to address ongoing concerns.

In April, the Toronto Police Services Board approved increasing the total complement of communications operators by 50 positions to 281, as well as adding three new supervisors, and implementing a revised shift schedule to tackle staffing shortages and to cut wait times. The 50 new operators started work on July 3. “We expect to see a change in terms of our response times,” said Coxon.

On July 6, when there was no known emergency or crisis situation in the City that could overwhelm the system, I was put on hold. Twice. The City clearly has not come anywhere close to addressing the problem of unreasonable and unacceptable delays for 911 calls.

In addition to having been grossly understaffed (though after my experience yesterday, I would say the staffing problem has not been resolved to any reasonable degree), the City claims that unintentional pocket dials and non-emergency calls are keeping 911 operators busy which contributes to the delay. Assuming this is true, the City has a duty to respond to the challenges of addressing non-emergency calls and mobile phone pocket dials. If it means there are more calls to sift through, then more staff must be hired to deal with the problem. With a continuously growing population, the problem will only worsen in the coming years.

The City’s solution to date is clearly insufficient as Toronto is not meeting internationally accepted standards for Emergency Responses. People have suffered tragic consequences because emergency situations simply cannot be put “on hold” by the 911 communication centre. This ongoing problem seems to be a result of years of negligence – such problems do not arise suddenly and overnight.

For the City to simply shrug its shoulders and point the finger at pocket dials is a dereliction of duty. Whatever the cause of the delays, the solution is clearly two-fold: far more operators and other emergency dispatchers must be hired, and protocol and procedure need to be improved, including embracing more efficient use of new digital technologies.

The problem of unreasonable delays puts lives of Torontonians in emergency situations at risk and must be promptly and adequately remedied.

By Ariana Gic