“It’s a stressful place to work, they’re around the clock, they’re often living the experience with the people phoning in who are often in crisis, and I’m just starting to see indicators that we can’t stay status quo,” said Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth.
Call volumes at the 911 call center have been increasing by about four per cent each year. Currently calls average about 600,000 and by 2025 that number is expected to be more than 800,000.
“I’m seeing more and more sick leave coming out of the center now than we’ve ever seen,” said Smyth. “More evidence of stress injuries where people are going off for longer periods of time on stress.”
Sick leaves are increasing by 176 per cent over the past five years and overtime is up by 100 per cent in the same time span.
And the issue is being exacerbated by people having to come in on their day off and work overtime to fill some of the vacancies being created by stress leave and sick calls.
Additionally, 30 per cent of new hires leave during the probationary period and in the last 10 years that number is 45 per cent. The chief said something needs to change.
“So there’s this kind of cycle that we’re experiencing. It’s not good for the center, certainly not good for the employees, but it’s not good for the community either,” Smyth added.
And it is not only the police that are being affected by this 911 employee burnout as not all calls are for the police.
“A fraction of those calls do go to Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Services for the dispatching of ambulances, dispatching of fire trucks. We have to recognize that is impacting those services as well,” said Markus Chambers, chair of the Winnipeg Police Board.
Smyth is calling on the Winnipeg Police Board to hire an additional twelve 911 call-takers and six dispatchers over the next two years. at a price tag of $1.8 million.
“We’re working through the 23 budget process and then the ongoing multi-year budget. So that’s kind of where we’re at now, is trying to determine just how we would fund that,” he said.
Chambers said that given the rise in calls for service, it is a matter of ensuring individuals are in place to take those calls but it’s not the only focus.
“We have to focus on how to reduce those calls — so it is about crime safety and crime prevention that we’re looking at.”
Cory Wiles, the president of the Winnipeg Police Association, said in an emailed statement to Global News that the police union has been lobbying for change for overworked 911 call takers and dispatchers for over eight years.
“Our members have seen an alarming and unmanageable increase in call volume and requests for unwanted overtime. As a result, they are struggling to achieve a healthy work-life balance,” the statement read.
“This job is extremely demanding which has posed a challenge for recruitment and retainment, lending to obvious signs of employee burnout. If this lack of resources continues, we certainly have concerns for our employees personal health.”
Currently, Manitoba and Ontario are the only provinces that don’t use mobile user fees to pay for 911 services and Smyth thinks a cellphone surcharge could help with funding.
He is concerned if something doesn’t change they run the risk of impacting 911 service.
“If you need an ambulance, if you need the fire department, if you need a police response, you’re phoning 9-1-1.”
“I know there’s a lot of people that are against the police, but this really isn’t about police. This is about our safety net in the community in terms of being able to have an emergency response.”
And it’s not just an issue impacting Winnipeg emergency services, but rural Manitoba ones as well.
The vacancy rate for 911 staff is currently at 32 per cent, according to Manitoba RCMP.
Nationally that number is at 40 per cent.
– with files from Global News’ Marney Blunt
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