Five minutes felt like an eternity for Brett House.
That’s how long House says he was on hold waiting for a 911 operator to answer his call when he came across a person having a mental and physical health crisis on the street in Toronto last fall.
“I was expecting an immediate pickup,” he said.
The five minutes House says he was on hold was actually below the average wait time for an emergency call to be answered by Toronto police’s 911 communication centre that day. Oct. 30 had the longest average wait time of 2022, with emergency callers waiting on hold for an average of six minutes and 28 seconds.
“I never would have anticipated there was an average wait time,” House said. “I didn’t think that was a concept applied to 911.”
More than a year ago, a CBC Toronto investigation revealed how lengthy 911 wait times are more than one-offs in Canada’s largest city amid burnout-fuelled staffing shortages. Internal police documents from a six-month period in 2021 showed there were sometimes fewer than 10 operators answering 911 calls in the city of roughly 2.8 million people — with monthly average wait times of up to 33 seconds and the longest wait times as high as 10 minutes.
Now, service reports for 2022 obtained through a municipal Freedom of Information request show wait times for 911 calls only got worse last year. Monthly average wait times went up for each of the six months compared with 2021, sometimes doubling year-to-year — or, in the case of July, growing five times longer, from just 19 seconds in 2021 to an average wait of one minute in 2022.
“There is a real problem here,” House said. “This is a canary in the coal mine of an increasing erosion of our public services.”
Voluntary 911 standard met just 11 days in 2022
There is no provincial oversight or legislation that sets standards for emergency call-answering times in Ontario. But the Toronto Police Service strives to meet a voluntary National Emergency Number Association minimum standard of answering 90 per cent of all 911 calls within 15 seconds.
In 2022, Toronto met that standard for only 11 days, and the overall average wait time for a 911 call to be answered was more than double the standard — at 38 seconds. There were also 55 days when the average wait on hold for 911 service was between one and two minutes, compared with just five days in 2021 when the wait for an operator was that long.
An audit of the 911 communication centre by Toronto’s auditor general last June found that call volume and staffing problems were at the heart of call answering delays and that the service needed to hire more operators.
The report made 26 recommendations, including establishing new minimum staffing requirements, developing data systems to better understand and improve performance, creating public awareness campaigns about when to call 911 and establishing a 911 levy to help modernize the city’s emergency services.
Police ‘aggressively’ working to improve wait times
CBC Toronto requested an interview with Toronto police Chief Myron Demkiw or someone from the 911 communication centre but was told the service didn’t have anyone available to speak on 911 wait times last week due to March break.
In an email statement, a Toronto police spokesperson said the service is taking action to address the auditor general’s recommendations for 911.
“Like many police services across North America, the Toronto Police Service is experiencing an increase in our 911 wait times due to a number of resource-driven factors,” Stephanie Sayer said. “It is something we are aggressively working to improve upon.”
As part of the 2023 budget, Sayer said, the service is in the process of hiring 20 full-time 911 operators. The maximum number of operators budgeted is 301, the same as it was more than a year ago during CBC Toronto’s previous investigation. The difference, Sayer said, is that it now represents 301 full-time 911 operators, whereas before it included part-time positions — although it’s unclear how many.
Other efforts to address the audit’s recommendations include call diversion initiatives, better training programs, targeted recruitment initiatives and mental health supports for operators to help increase retention, according to the police statement.
The audit recommendation to adopt a 911 levy would require new legislation from the provincial government. Ontario and Manitoba are the only provinces that don’t currently charge a monthly levy for 911 services. Last year’s report said a levy of $1 per cellphone user in Toronto could bring in an estimated $28.8 million a year.
CBC Toronto asked whether the provincial government plans to implement legislation for such a levy and for Ontario-wide standards for 911 call answering, but the response from the office of Solicitor General Michael Kerzner didn’t address those questions.
Instead, in a statement, junior press secretary Hunter Kell said that “the delivery of emergency services is largely a municipal jurisdiction.” He added that the province is distributing $208 million in grants to 911 call centres across Ontario to help modernize their technology.
‘Seconds always count’
“There should be some minimum standards for training, there should be some minimum standards for call answer times,” said Robert Stewart, board president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, Canada.
“Seconds always count.”
Stewart, who is also the director of emergency communications in Brandon, Man., said the same set of problems Toronto is facing can be found at 911 communication centres across Canada.
“The big three issues tend to be staffing, mental health and funding, and all three of those issues are interconnected,” Stewart said. “As you get less and less staff, you’re working them harder and harder.”
The Toronto auditor general’s report found that staffing issues meant overtime was needed almost every day and that from 2018 through 2021, there were only three days with no staff absences at the city’s 911 communications centre.
Staffing was likely the problem when it comes to Toronto’s longest average 911 wait time from last year, Stewart said. When asked about the average wait of six minutes and 28 seconds on Oct. 30, he said, “That tells me they had hardly anybody answering the phone.”
For six months in 2021, CBC Toronto reviewed reports that showed longest wait times on hold as high as 10 minutes and two seconds, with only nine operators taking calls.
But it’s unclear how high individual longest wait times were in 2022 — and how many operators were working during those waits — because Toronto police redacted that information from the reports it provided through a Freedom of Information request.
In the service’s decision letter, it said that those statistics were exempt from disclosure because providing them would be a risk to officer and public safety.