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Does 911 Need 911?

Alberta 911 operators are at their wit’s end as the province’s healthcare system is stretched thin

According to Mike Parker, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), call takers are so busy that they need to disconnect calls in order to answer others. 

The cause? 

Call centres are overworked and understaffed.

In Alberta, there are a total of three provincial 911 call centres. These centres are located in Calgary, Edmonton, and Peace River. Alberta Health Services (AHS) is responsible for operating these call centres. Pushed beyond their limits, staff are choosing to leave AHS. 

To make matters worse, 911 call centres now get 30 percent more calls compared to pre-pandemic levels. To meet this demand, staff work brutal 12-hour shifts. 

During the first four months of 2022, just over one in ten scheduled shifts went unfilled. On April 24, 2022, that number was 1 in 4. 

Folks are burning out and calling in sick, which makes things even harder for the staff who showed up.

To take as many calls as possible, 911 has started to cut callers off after they’ve gotten the necessary information. It’s called the Urgent Disconnect Protocol. 

It’s only supposed to be used when 911 is getting an extreme number of calls.

Urgent Disconnect Protocol means staff get all information they need from a caller and then hang up. But they urge callers to call back immediately if their situation gets worse.

Folks who need an ambulance are never put on hold or disconnected. 

We can’t go on like this. But how do we fix it? 

For starters, Alberta’s Emergency Medical Service (EMS) is hiring 28 new operators. They start training in August.

But Parker knows this isn’t a long term solution. In his eyes, EMS and call centre employees working for AHS deserve the same pay as 911 call centres run by municipalities. 

Right now, AHS call takers get paid significantly less than any other civilian communications officer in Alberta. 

It’s obvious why staff at AHS-run call centres aren’t exactly motivated to stick around. 

In an attempt to resolve this issue, HSAA and AHS are working on a contract for 20,000 health workers in Alberta.

If successful, call takers will get a raise every four years. 

At the very least, call takers might stay in their jobs longer.

A vote on whether the HSAA accepts this new contract will finish up on July 25.

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