Nearly half the 911 calls in Peel are misdials or inappropriate
Emergencies can develop in a flash.
A small fire inside a house can engulf the entire structure in less than five minutes. When a heart attack strikes, every minute that passes without medical intervention decreases a victim’s chance of survival by as much as 10 percent. Studies have shown that if police are able to respond to a crime in less than five minutes, the chance of a successful arrest is as high as 60 percent. If it takes officers longer than five minutes, that rate plummets to just 20 percent.
Medical professionals have created the acronym F.A.S.T. (Face, Arms, Speech, Time) to recognize and respond to stroke symptoms as ‘fast’ as possible—with an emphasis on diagnosing loss of control of facial movements, paralysis in an arm and slurred speech, then immediately getting to the victim to begin life-saving treatment. The longer the response, the worse the effect of the stroke, as the possibility of death increases with every second lost.
These are the realities of people who take emergency 911 calls. Lives depend on their ability to do their job under unfathomably stressful time constraints.
Unfortunately, the number of people tying up 911 call centres with non-emergencies, or their smartphone’s inappropriate dials, when an emergency line is reached accidentally, continues to rise, tying up crucial resources designated for life or death situations.
In Peel, nearly half of the 911 calls received in 2022 were deemed inappropriate and were not for true emergencies.
The Region’s dispatch centre received 644,106 calls to 911 last year, a 15 percent increase from 2021. Almost 50 percent of those—305,639 or 1,765 calls per day—were deemed non-emergencies. This took vital time away from callers experiencing possibly fatal situations that are nearly always dependent on getting treatment in the least amount of time as possible. This misuse of 911 marks a 10 percent increase over 2021.
In May 2022, residents waited an average of 80 seconds before connecting with a communicator. Two months later during the widespread Rogers outage on July 8 there were numerous reports of people struggling to connect with 911. This wait time slightly decreased in 2022, but Peel remains well above national standards for 911 response times.
Communicators, tasked with answering the calls made for police, ambulance, or fire services, are alarmingly overburdened with hangups—known as HUPs. Every call made to 911, even if the person immediately hangs up, requires a dispatcher to call them back—in the event there is an actual emergency unfolding.
Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah told regional councillors last month that “one of the biggest bottlenecks'' for police service is in the 911 dispatch centre, highlighting a number of important points in the annual report before Peel Council on June 22.
Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah says even with the addition of 25 new 911 communicators, the force will still struggle under the growing workload.
(The Pointer files)
All calls to 911 in Peel go through one centre.
He noted there has been a decrease in wait times compared to 2021, although it is still significantly higher than national standards.
While the Region of Peel cannot control the volume of calls, it can ensure it has enough dispatchers on duty to help curb the significant delays. With the increasing misuse inevitably leading to increased call volumes, and therefore, wait times for residents, the Region is looking to hire more communicators. The police service is hiring 50 new civilian employees within the force in 2023, half of those which will be trained as 911 Communicators.
PRP is responsible for hiring and employing these call takers and dispatchers, and from February to May 2021, they hired 12 communicators at a cost of $1.3 million. After considering salaries, training, equipment, and other costs, the price to hire 25 Communicators is $2.9 million. The 2022 budget of PRP was $484.9 million.
As of June, residents are now waiting an average of 55 seconds before connecting with a communicator to ask for police, ambulance, or fire. Peel is well away from meeting the threshold for national standards that state 90 percent of calls must be answered within 10 seconds and 95 percent within 20 seconds.
Chief Duraiappah emphasized that despite the additional hires, it will not be enough to address the growing workload and lengthy backups on the phone lines. According to police data, on-hold times for Peel 911 have increased 450 percent since 2017.
Peel Police, and law enforcement agencies across the country are also dealing with a new problem, poorly designed smartphone features that are clogging 911 centres across the globe.
“We are experiencing a significant increase in 911 hang-ups/accidental calls. Recent software updates to the Emergency SOS feature on Android devices make it easier to dial 911 unintentionally,” Peel Regional Police (PRP) tweeted on June 15. Cellphone users, particularly Android users, are encouraged to turn this setting off.”
Many other southern Ontario police agencies, as well as those in Europe and the UK issued similar warnings last month.
“If you have accidentally dialed 9-1-1, please STAY ON THE LINE and speak to the Operator and inform them of the situation.”
Most of the time, device users are unaware that the Emergency SOS feature has been activated,” they said.
SOS features have been available on many smartphones, including Android devices since 2021. A large part of the recent issues stem from the feature only recently receiving widespread rollout on many Android devices, causing a significant uptick in accidental calls. iPhones has also received attention for a feature designed to detect when the user is in a car accident. It has led to accidental 911 calls when people are riding roller coasters, or even at music festivals.
Neither Apple or Samsung, the two tech giants responsible for the SOS software feature that causes the majority of pocket dials, have made statements on their role in the public safety crisis threatening countries around the world.
Callbacks cause a significant strain on the system, making people wait in dire situations where time is almost always the most important factor in getting effective treatment. Anywhere from one quarter to almost half of communicators work days are spent calling numbers back, a majority of them being pocket dials from smartphones with dangerous, overlooked emergency settings controlled mostly by two large corporations who have yet to be held accountable for their role in this problem that puts public safety at risk. The top five reasons Peel residents call 911 are for domestic disputes or family and intimate partner violence; medical assistance; motor vehicle collision or personal injury; and impaired driving
People in the midst of medical emergencies are not the only ones to suffer. Threats to public safety for any reason requiring the attention of a police officer will also experience delays in attending to and effectively dealing with a multitude of situations.
These additional delays are compounded by Peel’s already strained resources and lackluster response times to critical issues. Current response times see an officer arriving for a Priority 3 or 4 call stretching into multiple hours or even the next day. For something like a stolen car—a crime that has increased 142 percent since 2017—the victim can be waiting up to 9 hours for a police officer to arrive.
In April 2022, the Government of Ontario announced an investment of $208 million over three years to enhance the province’s 911 emergency response system, giving municipalities the technology and training they need to transition from the current Enhanced 911 (analog) to the Next Generation 911 (digital) system.
NG9-1-1 will allow communicators to receive text messages, pictures, videos, and most importantly, be able to track the precise location of an incoming call from a mobile device or VOIP system. With E9-1-1, precise locations were only able to be found through landlines, which was an efficient system until 90 percent of people on average within developed countries owned mobile phones. Today, it is estimated that more than half of emergency calls are made from devices other than a landline, creating demand for a quick transition to the new and improved system. Lack of access to precise locations, especially, has resulted in many tragedies that could have been otherwise avoided if attended to in decent time.
Mobile phones will still connect to the next generation system even without regular service because it runs on a different network negating the worry about inability to connect to 911 during future outages.
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