CUPE 104 president says B.C. dispatch centres are understaffed by an average of 43 per cent.
The union representing RCMP emergency dispatchers across the country says there’s an acute shortage of staff in British Columbia, which could worsen crisis responses.
Most emergency calls in the westernmost province are handled by the non-profit organization E-Comm, which is funded by multiple Lower Mainland municipalities. Emergency dispatchers there have complained of significant staff shortages and overwork over the last year.
However, for some of the most remote communities in the province — including most of the north and the Interior — the RCMP handles dispatch operations.
According to Kathleen Hippern, the president of CUPE Local 104, which represents RCMP dispatchers, B.C. RCMP call centres are understaffed by an average of 43 per cent.
Hippern says that, according to numbers provided by the RCMP, the Prince George and Kelowna dispatch centres are some of the hardest hit in Canada.
“We’re in a crisis. It’s scary,” she told CBC News. “It’s a patchwork of solutions to try and get them any help.”
According to Hippern, dispatchers are being physically flown in daily from another centre in Courtenay to aid with the shortages in Prince George.
“They’re even taking officers that are retired and bringing them back and trying to get them to take calls,” she said. “They’re not trained dispatchers … it’s a patchwork.”
The cost of RCMP contract services in a municipality or region — including salaries and equipment — is split between Ottawa and other levels of government.
In this case, Hippern is calling on the national RCMP leadership and the Treasury Board, which manages the public service’s wages, to get vacancies filled faster.
The Treasury Board deferred to the RCMP when asked for a response. The RCMP says it is “working diligently” to address the issue.
“A number of initiatives have been undertaken in the divisions to increase the number of trained 911 dispatchers in their jurisdictions,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “For example … in British Columbia, the RCMP started a new hiring event called ‘Coffee with a Dispatcher.'”
The event highlighted by the RCMP in B.C. involves an emergency dispatcher sitting down with interested applicants at a coffee shop and taking questions about the role.
The spokesperson said that, nationally, from January to November 2022, there was a 38.67 per cent vacancy rate among dispatchers. However, they said that 20 per cent of those were considered “soft” or temporary vacancies.
“These leave categories include medical leave, maternity and paternity leave, education or language training, etc.,” they said. “Typically, soft vacancies are not factored into vacancy reporting as the value fluctuates over time.”
Hippern said that she has been working as a dispatcher since 2006 and that the “snowball” of short-staffing has been accelerating over the last decade.
The union president says that dispatchers in remote communities are particularly stretched during crisis situations like wildfires — calls that she says that can’t be handled effectively when centres are that understaffed.
“Now, we’d be in trouble.”
Hippern says that dispatch centres were no longer the “employer of choice,” especially for younger people who are put off by the idea of working evenings, weekends and holidays.
She also says the RCMP should pay dispatchers more for the work they do and that the wages being offered are not competitive with the rest of the public sector.
The annual starting salary for an RCMP dispatcher in B.C. is $51,673.
CUPE 104 is currently negotiating its first collective agreement with the RCMP. Talks have been underway since 2021, according to the force.
“The RCMP shares and supports the Government of Canada’s commitment to reaching an agreement with RCMP 911 dispatchers that is fair to employees and reasonable to Canadians,” an RCMP spokesperson said in a statement.