Winnipeg’s police chief says the city needs to hire more 911 operators and dispatchers to handle increasing call volumes and reduce the burden on existing staff at the emergency call center.
Danny Smyth says he’s asked the Winnipeg Police Board to increase annual 911 funding by $1.8 million to hire 12 more call-takers and six more dispatchers.
Smyth said a cellphone surcharge could pay for the additional staff, noting that Manitoba is one of only two provinces that does not use mobile phone fees to pay for 911 services.
In a Substack post published on Monday, Smyth said 911 call volumes in Winnipeg have risen in proportion with the growth in the city’s population in recent years, but 911 call-centre staffing has been effectively frozen.
Calls for service increased from close to 586,000 in 2017 to slightly more than 713,000 in 2022, Smyth said.
The increasing call burden has led to an over-reliance on overtime to cover off 911 shifts, the police chief said. This, in turn, has required more 911 employees to call in sick or take stress leave.
‘Pretty alarming stuff’
“We’re starting to see indicators that we’re harming our people,” Smyth said in an interview at the Winnipeg police headquarters, pointing to a 2022 employee survey that found almost a third of new 911 hires quit during the first year.
“It’s pretty alarming stuff when when we’re losing almost 30 percent of the people that we train in the first year and when I look back over 10 years, almost 40 percent of our staff have moved on to either other positions or left the service altogether,” Smyth said.
“All those things combined tell me that we need to do something to relieve some of the pressure there.”
Smyth said 911 operators and dispatchers are also contending with more reports of violent crimes. A CBC News analysis of police calls for service in 2022 backs up this claim, even as the overall number of calls for service dropped during the first five months of last year.
“I think it’s important that people understand that these are people that are working in these areas and we expect an awful lot of them. They work around the clock in a real pressure cooker and you know they’re in need of some additional help, ” the police chief said.
Smyth said the 911 situation is dire enough to affect the city’s ability to respond to 911 calls in a timely manner. He said he has asked the Winnipeg Police Board to phase in $1.8 million in increased 911 funding over the next two years.
The police service does not have the capacity to train 18 more 911 employees this year alone, he explained.
Informally, the city council’s executive policy committee has already approved the additional funding, said Coun. Marcus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River), who chairs the Winnipeg Police Board.
But it’s not clear yet where the money will come from. City council finance chair Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) said the initial draft of the 2023 budget will be published in early February.
Both Smyth and Chambers said they are aware that a segment of the Winnipeg population is skeptical of any increase in police funding, but they note that 911 employees are civilians who perform a vital service that complements policing.
“The political challenge is trying to disassociate it from actual policing,” Chambers said Monday in an interview.
“We need to have people in place when 911 is called to maintain certain industry standards in terms of the length of time it takes for a 911 operator to respond to that call.”
Smyth said a cellphone surcharge could cushion the financial impact for Winnipeg. Every province except Manitoba and Ontario uses mobile phone fees to help pay for 911 services.
The monthly fees run from a low of 43 cents in Nova Scotia to $1.95 in Saskatchewan, according to a fee schedule published by mobile phone provider Virgin Plus.
Smyth said Manitoba needs to shift the burden in 911 financing from increasingly scarce landlines to mobile phones. Mobile phone users should receive enhanced services in return, the chief added.
Technological upgrades coming to 911 services should allow users to upload videos of emergencies directly to operators, he said.
The province does not have to pass new legislation to allow for mobile-phone surcharges, but would be required to approve the new fees, Smyth added.
Chambers said he was not aware of the mobile phone surcharge proposal. Premier Heather Stefanson’s Progressive Conservative government did not immediately comment.