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A firefighter returns to a truck after crews extinguished a fire at an apartment building in Burnaby, B.C., in 2014. Staffing shortages have forced 911 emergency service dispatchers to work 'well beyond' their normal hours, a union says.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The union that represents E-Comm 911 emergency service dispatchers in British Columbia is calling for the agency to extend temporary compensation and psychological supports amid a “dire” staffing shortage.

Emergency Communications Professionals of BC said in a news release that staffing shortages have forced call takers to work “well beyond” their normal hours, which it believes is unsustainable.

E-Comm began providing shift differential enhancements for weekend workers, increased overtime pay and offered additional sessions with mental health professionals earlier this year “in anticipation of a busy summer for emergency services and the potential for heightened overtime requirements.”

The temporary provisions are set to expire Sept. 21, while the added mental health supports end in December, the union said.

Donald Grant, CUPE 8911 president, said the funding has made a “tremendous” difference so far.

However, Mr. Grant said that although E-Comm has been consistently hiring new staff, worker retention remains a major problem because of low wages and burnout.

“Our concern is that without these measures in place, that situation will become even worse,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

“We lost 20 per cent of our staff from last year. If we lose another 20 per cent, I can’t even imagine what that situation would look like,” he said.

Carrie James, a dispatcher for E-Comm 911 in Vancouver, said the shortages can affect response times for both non-emergency and emergency calls.

“We can’t keep up, and no matter how hard we work or how fast we work, there’s always somebody waiting for help and we can never get to them fast enough,” she said.

Ms. James said the stress associated with understaffing had taken a toll on workers’ mental health, and some of her co-workers have described job-related nightmares, while others suffered from insomnia.

“I don’t think that I know a single person who doesn’t feel like they’re working the maximum number of hours that they possibly can,” she said.

Workers sometimes skipped lunch and bathroom breaks because of the volume of unanswered calls, Ms. James said.

“It’s pretty much a lose-lose scenario. You can’t do your job if you don’t take care of yourself, but if you take care of yourself, you can’t do your job,” she said.

Mr. Grant said the union believed the long-term solution would be to enhance the compensation package permanently.

“[We need] to reduce the number of people leaving the organization by enhancing the compensation package [and] by giving them the psychological support and mental health care so that they’re able to take care of themselves while we increase the staffing numbers to where they need to be.”

E-Comm said in a statement Tuesday that it was assessing “all available short- and long-term options,” including extending the funding.

It said it sometimes relied on overtime to ensure enough dispatchers were available for calls and that, since the start of the summer, 13 notices of “forced overtime” had been issued to cover a total of 9.5 shifts.

Mr. Grant said the union was also calling on “all levels of government” to step in to help provide the supports dispatchers needed to effectively serve the community.

“It’s going to take provincial, regional and municipal governments to come together in order to solve the funding crisis at E-Comm,” he said. “On top of that, management needs to take urgent and decisive action in order to stop the levels of attrition that we’re seeing so that we’re able to increase the staffing levels.”

B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety said in a statement that it was working with E-Comm to help find a solution.

“The province is considering options to best support delivery of these services while E-Comm addresses the immediate challenges,” it said. “Like all emergency services, the immediate response falls to the agency to address the issues facing them.”

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