Burnout and stress in Alberta’s overburdened healthcare system are driving absenteeism and turnover among 911 operators, according to a worker who takes calls for the province’s ambulances.
The 911 call taker, an emergency communications officer (ECO) working at one of Alberta’s three EMS call centers, says they are at their wit’s end, unable to keep up with shifts 12-hour “relentless” work.
“I can attest to the absolute implosion of the 911 call/dispatch system,” the call taker wrote. “Frankly, we are beyond exhausted. We all know the level of work intensity is going to be [high] for 12 hours.”
CBC News has agreed to keep the writer’s identity and workplace confidential out of concern for his job, having not been authorized to speak to the media.
The dispatcher contacted CBC News following a report about an Access to Information (FOI) request about employee absenteeism among emergency communications officers at provincial 911 call centers.
This Freedom of Information request showed that 12% of scheduled shifts from January to April this year were not filled. There were several days when more than a fifth of shifts were unstaffed.
A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services says absenteeism is due to illness, stress and fatigue – issues experienced across all health professions.
“We take care of our patients”
Emergency Communications Officer says call volumes and absenteeism have a direct effect on patient care as operators are forced to cut off vital lines of communication between 911 callers and crews EMS.
Yet, according to the CEO, they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
“I think part of the problem is also that all of us as a team make it happen,” the email read. “We take care of our patients and do everything we can to make care accessible to them.”
AHS says system-wide absenteeism is down from highs seen earlier in the year, when it was 4.89%. By comparison, that number was 7.3% in January, the peak of the previous Omicron wave of COVID-19.
The Freedom of Information request shows that in January, 14.6% of shifts went unfilled at Alberta’s EMS call centers. June figures were not available.
Ratify a new collective agreement
AHS says staff turnover is a problem, which was echoed in the letter from the emergency communications officer, who says their call center has been hiring continuously for six months.
Mike Parker is the president of the Alberta Health Services Association, the union representing EMS and call center employees working for AHS. He says pay equity with municipally-run 911 call centers (responsible for police and fire dispatch) would go a long way to solving the turnover problem.
“These people are paid $10 an hour less than any other communications center in this province,” Parker told CBC Calgary. The last straight line.
“So why would they stay? They’re highly skilled and highly skilled, and if they can do this job here, they can do it anywhere, and so they’re moving on.”
The ECO letter also discusses contract negotiations between HSAA and AHS, which ended in a mediated settlement in June, saying they are unhappy with progress on pay and working conditions. .
“You have the perfect storm indeed,” says the call dispatcher. “We are upset, we are fed up and we are very sad that we cannot provide the patient care that we all want.”
AHS says the psychological and physical health of employees was a focus of the negotiation process, noting that the proposed agreement includes enhanced benefits and mental health supports.
The health authority says it is actively working to recruit new staff to relieve pressure and stress from the system.
“AHS is committed to providing competitive compensation packages,” he said in a statement. “Once ratified, the new collective agreement will provide wage increases over four years.”
A vote on whether HSAA members will accept the new contract will end on July 25.