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B.C.'s 911 dispatch operator sees busy night, long wait times over long weekend

Vancouver -

B.C.'s emergency dispatchers are again sounding the alarm on long ambulance wait times and a Vancouver Island resident is sharing her story of being left on hold for nearly two hours after calling 911 over the long weekend.

Erin Booth was grocery shopping Sunday evening when she suddenly felt unwell.

“I just immediately got a lot of intense pressure in my head. My ears started ringing felt like they're going to burst and I lost hearing. I got really lightheaded and almost fell to the ground,” she said.

The Saanichton resident said she recently changed medications that put her at risk of blood clots.

Out of caution, Booth called 911 at 7 p.m. but the operator told her it would be a long wait for an ambulance.

She saw on social media that others were dealing with delays and decided to take a cab to the hospital instead, but remained on hold with 911.

After 28 minutes on the line, she arrived at the hospital and staff advised her to hang up the call.

“This can’t go on unaddressed,” she told CTV News Vancouver. “I'm thinking of all the people that have heart attacks, we've heard of people dying on the phone and still not getting through.”

Booth finally heard from the ambulance service at 8:46 p.m., nearly two hours after she made her initial call, asking if she still needed an ambulance. But at that point, she was being prepped for tests at the hospital.

When she left the hospital Monday morning, the physician told her to return to the emergency room if she experiences any stroke-like symptoms again, but she said she isn’t going to rely on the ambulance to get her there.

Busy weekend for dispatchers and paramedics 

According to E-Comm, the province's largest 911 dispatcher, callers waited for 90 seconds on average before hearing from an operator. Those long wait times were recorded between midnight and 7 a.m. Sunday, the middle of Thanksgiving long weekend.

The agency also tweeted Sunday evening that it was experiencing similar delays and urged people to keep the lines free for emergencies only.

E-Comm said it's been seeing a concerning trend of long waits since the summer.

One spokesperson told CTV News Vancouver the delays are a result of switching calls to the ambulance service because the operator stays on the line until that call gets successfully transferred.

"We have seen increasing delays in those call transfers to (BC Emergency Health Services) over the last several months," said E-Comm spokesperson Kaila Butler.

"Unfortunately we are at the point where this has become a more consistent concern and E-Comm in the name of public safety and in our efforts to be completely transparent with the public … we have started tweeting out when we've started seeing 911 delays as a result of this."

The union president representing paramedics and emergency dispatchers said staffing shortages are to blame for the delays.

“It's been a tough weekend,” said Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. “Historically, as you know, we have challenges on weekends but long weekends tend to have even more expanded challenges, and this weekend is not unique.”

Butler said some callers were hanging up when they heard an automated message before they spoke to a call taker, which added to the wait times because the operator would call those people back.

“A lot of callers disconnect and call back thinking that they're going to get help faster,” she explained. “If you hear an automated recording, please stay on the line. That is the fastest way to get help.”

Clifford said ideally, no one should be left in limbo.

“First and foremost, everybody should be getting through to 911-- and ultimately the ambulance service if they need one -- there should be no delays,” he said.

Last week, Premier John Horgan said the wait times are unacceptable, adding an update will be coming soon. The province has already committed to hundreds of new paramedic positions and 30 new dispatchers.

CTV News also reached out to BCEHS for comment and has not heard back.  

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