Quebec’s emergency call centres are facing acute staff shortages that are lengthening dispatch times for ambulances and forcing workers to juggle 911 calls for heart attacks and other emergencies, according to the union representing workers in the pre-hospital emergency care sector.
The Federation des employes du Prehospitalier du Quebec (FPHQ), which is currently without a contract, is calling on the province to boost financial resources to avert what it calls a “catastrophic” breakdown in services.
Stéphane Rainville, the president of the brotherhood of emergency dispatchers for the Laurentides and Lanaudière regions, says a lack of personnel is increasing response times to 911 calls.
He said his office, which should be staffed by seven people, is regularly short two, meaning the remaining workers have to sometimes leave people on hold if there are too many calls at once.
“Whenever you haven’t answered, you ask yourself, ‘is it a heart attack waiting?”‘ he said in an interview.
“If we’re already with a heart attack, we’re forced to tell the person, ‘lay them on the ground and start CPR, we’ll call you back,’ and take another call.”
Whenever you haven’t answered, you ask yourself, ‘is it a heart attack waiting?’– Stéphane Rainville
He said dispatchers try to answer a call within 30 seconds and get an ambulance on the road within two minutes. But lately, it sometimes takes two or three minutes just to answer, he said.
Calls for better salaries, working conditions
Rainville said the staff shortages create a “vicious circle” leading to more burnout and more people quitting, which leaves those who remain working yet more hours.
He said the tough conditions take a mental toll on workers doing what is already a stressful, difficult job.
The union, whose workers include paramedics and dispatchers, have been without a contract for the last nine months.
In a news release, FPHQ President Daniel Chouinard said the call centre workers are paid a starting wage of $21.37 per hour, which doesn’t reflect the difficulty of the job or their specialized knowledge of health services and emergency situations.
He’s urging the Quebec government to sign a new contract to restore some stability in the sector and avoid service disruptions.
Rainville said many emergency dispatch workers are leaving for companies such as Purolator, which he said offers higher pay.
In addition to salary, he said the workers are also asking for better mental health support and working conditions that will allow them to take the time off they need.
Quebec isn’t the only province dealing with staff shortages and burnout in the emergency services sector.
In British Columbia, the union that represents E-Comm 911 emergency service dispatchers called this summer for an extension of temporary compensation and psychological supports amid a “dire” staffing shortage that forced call takers to work well beyond their normal hours.