PORT MOODY, B.C. -- The agency that oversees the majority of British Columbia’s 911 calls is anticipating one of the busiest summers on record for emergency services and first responders.

E-Comm says it’s already seeing some of its highest volumes of calls in more than two decades.

However, it’s expected to get even busier in the coming months, as this is the first summer in B.C. without major COVID-19 restrictions since the onset of the pandemic.

“A lot of the major events like Celebration of Light and the Canada Day celebrations, the outdoor musical festivals, they're all back in full force. Tourism is back, so we know it's just going to be generally much busier” said Jasmine Bradley, executive director of communications and public affairs for E-Comm.

The South Coast is also experiencing its first stretch of hot weather this year, meaning more people were out and about.

“E-Comm saw 23 per cent more 911 calls coming through this past weekend than any other weekend in June,” said Bradley.

She says staff were still answering calls in one-and-a-half seconds, on average.

“It was an extremely busy weekend for emergency services. Police overall saw a 19 per cent increase in calls, ambulances saw a nine per cent increase in calls, and fire actually saw twice as many calls as they normally do during a weekend in June,” said Bradley.

Summer is traditionally the busiest time of year for first responders with more people traveling and enjoying recreational activities.

Bradley also attributes the spike in calls to increased cellphone use, a growing and aging population, the illicit drug toxicity crisis, mental health challenges, and weather events like floods, fires and heat.

STAFF SHORTAGES AND INCREASED DEMAND 

British Columbians dialed 911 more than two million times last year.

Nine out of 10 of the busiest days for 911 emergency services ever recorded happened in 2021.

Call volumes were up 22 per cent in the last quarter of the year than compared to the same time in 2020.

The agency is predicting a further increase of 12 per cent in emergency calls this year.

Bradley says it's also facing a staffing shortage, with 20 per cent fewer call takers than 2021.

E-Comm is reminding the public to only call 911 during an emergency.

“Forty per cent of the police non-emergency calls that we do receive don't actually belong on the non-emergency lines. They're not police matters,” said Bradley.

However, if it is an emergency, officials don’t want British Columbians to hesitate.

“But if you have a less-urgent health issue, you can call 811 and get connected with a nurse or other professional at HealthLinkBC,” said Brian Twaites, a paramedic specialist with BC Emergency Health Services.

The Vancouver Police Department says it's expecting to see a surge of people enjoying beaches, parks, and entertainment in the city over the next few months.

"More people always bring more calls for police service, and we'll continue to make public safety our top priority,” said Sgt. Steve Addison.

Vancouver Fire Rescue Services is also preparing for increased demand.

“We remind people to ensure their smoke alarms are working, they use and charge lithium ion battery-operated devices safely, and ensure smoking material is discarded properly,” said Matthew Trudeau, captain of public information.

E-Comm is reminding people to only call 911 if immediate action is required by police, fire or ambulance services.

It says callers should know their location so first responders can find them quickly and easily.

“Your call is important, and the clearer and faster you can provide the information they need, the more calls they can take and the more people they can help,” said E-Comm in a news release.

The agency is also reminding people to avoid pocket dials by turning devices on airplane mode if children are playing with it. Calls made in error shouldn't be abandoned, the agency adds, noting hang-ups mean a call taker has to follow up to make sure whoever made the call is safe.

LONG WAIT TIMES FOR AMBULANCES

B.C. is once again struggling to keep up with the demand for ambulances.

Front-line workers tell CTV News that some people in Metro Vancouver waited several hours over the weekend.

“Over the last year we've seen 20, 30, 40 per cent of ambulances at any given time out of service,” said Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of B.C.

Clifford says that’s due to a lack of staff.

“We're seeing some communities that are completely out of service and they're trying to cross cover from other communities (by) sharing ambulances,” said Clifford.

He says there have been major efforts to recruit, but not enough people are joining the profession to keep up with demand.

“I'll be brutally honest, we need more,” said Clifford.

He says that’s despite extra funding and resources in recent years.

“What that has done is highlighted how far behind we got over the last 20 years, by the governments of the times. This government put more in the last two years into the ambulance service than I've seen in my whole 34 years, which is incredible, but it's really still not enough,” he said.

Clifford says the current level of service is not acceptable, but those who are working are burnt out and doing the best they can.

“Anytime you don't get the care you need and when you need it for your family or loved ones in a timely fashion that has the potential to have serious outcomes on patient well-being. So is it safe? Probably not,” he said.

Disptachers say current staff are leaving faster than new staff can be hired, leaving them chronically understaffed as well.

“The temporary system that E-Comm instated back in December is still in place where we are essentially hanging up on people that are asking for the ambulance service and leaving them on hold by themselves,” said Donald Grant, president of CUPE Local 8911, which represents dispatchers.

The Ministry of Health said it has added 125 full-time paramedics and 42 new dispatcher positions, but the unions say pay and benefits need to be improved to retain existing staff and ease the burden on the system.

According to BC Emergency Health Services, 46 people usually work dispatch on a Saturday dayshift and this weekend, 16 of those positions were vacant.

Eleven of 43 positions on the overnight shift went unstaffed as well, contributing to lengthy wait times for service. 

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Ben Miljure