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'Seconds count': Woman sounds alarm after she says 911 call put on hold for 5 minutes

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2018-06-04 Philip Lee-Shanok
a close up of a screen: According to National Emergency Number Association guidelines, 90 per cent of emergency calls should be answered within 10 seconds and 95 per cent should be answered within 20 seconds. © Getty Images According to National Emergency Number Association guidelines, 90 per cent of emergency calls should be answered within 10 seconds and 95 per cent should be answered within 20 seconds.

Toronto Police Services is adding more communications operators as fast as it can, but the new 911 call takers and dispatchers are still being trained, meaning there may still be instances when anxious callers are being left waiting on hold.

Last week Nada Morra, owner of Original's Ale House, near Bayview Avenue and Eglinton Avenue., called 911 when one of her customers began choking and couldn't breathe.

"It wasn't good to be honest with you. I was shocked that I was put on hold. It was a medical emergency or I wouldn't have called," Morra said. "It was too long to wait on hold. Five minutes is a long time. It was enough time for somebody to pass away."

a woman smiling for the camera: Nada Morra, owner of Original's Ale House, near Bayview and Eglinton Aves., says her 911 call was put on hold after one of her customers started choking and couldn't breathe. © LinkedIn Nada Morra, owner of Original's Ale House, near Bayview and Eglinton Aves., says her 911 call was put on hold after one of her customers started choking and couldn't breathe.

Morra says the customer was a regular to her restaurant, who had recently been in hospital and was having trouble breathing. 

"What if that was one of your children or a family member? I was scared. I was pacing — seconds count.," she said, adding that when she did finally get through, help arrived within minutes.

New call takers coming 

The delay answering Morra's call happened even though the Toronto Police Services Board gave the go ahead at its last meeting to hire 50 more communications operators — to raise the total staff complement of 281 positions.

a person wearing a uniform: Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon, head of Priority Response Command, conducted a review of 9-1-1 Communications Services. She says the unit constantly monitors response times and look into each and every issue where there a longer than expected delay. © YouTube Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon, head of Priority Response Command, conducted a review of 9-1-1 Communications Services. She says the unit constantly monitors response times and look into each and every issue where there a longer than expected delay.

Mike McCormack, head of the Toronto Police Association, lobbied for new hires. 

"They approved an increase in the size communications and the staffing.  It should have an impact, it's just getting them trained on the the floor," he said.

And McCormack says not all hires pass the rigorous training  — as many as three in ten fail.  

In response to the report of the delay in answering Morra's 911 call, Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon, head of Priority Response Command, said in a emailed statement that Communications Services constantly monitors response times and looks into any issue where there a longer than expected delay.

'In good shape' to manage summer months

The unit hired 20 new operators in October, she said, but they need six months of intense training before they can take calls under supervision. Then they need another six months of training to learn how to dispatch officers.

"I can also tell you that we have increased our floor staff complement from 231 to 254 and expect more to join in July so we will be in good shape to manage the busy summer months. And we will see more Communications Operators join in October," said Coxon.

She said July 3rd will be a pivotal date, when more than 14 more call takers who are now in training will be added to the mix.

At a Toronto Police Services Board meeting in April, Coxon, who was tasked with reviewing 911 operations, listed the challenges Communications Services faces and outlined a plan to improve and modernize the service.

'A significant gap'

She says while the number of operators hasn't changed in 25 years, the volume of calls they take and the length of time they spend of each call has dramatically increased.

a person holding a sign: On July 3 more than 14 more communications officers will be added to the mix and 26 more staff will be available to call back people who dialed 9-1-1, but were disconnected or hung up. © Toronto Police Services Board On July 3 more than 14 more communications officers will be added to the mix and 26 more staff will be available to call back people who dialed 9-1-1, but were disconnected or hung up.

Meanwhile 23.3 per cent are not available to take calls and dispatch calls due to maternity, parental leave, medical leave or injuries.

"Combine that with a 33 per cent increase in time spent on calls and there's a significant gap." she told the board.

The report indicates that average response time ranges from 17 seconds to 3.5 minutes and that "reports of unacceptable wait times... are frequently being received."

Board members voted unanimously to increase number of Communications Operators from 231 to 281 full time employees. The hiring starting in the fall and should be completed by March 2019 and will cost $1.6 million this year and $4.9 million in 2019

But more pressure on staffing is expected as operators retire and a new court requirement to have 911 transcripts ready for first appearances will put more pressure on the system.

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