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'Barely hanging on': Union says RCMP emergency dispatchers facing retention and recruiting crisis

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The union representing RCMP emergency communications specialists says a lack of staff and retention issues are crunching 911 dispatchers to their breaking point.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees says there is a 40 per cent average job vacancy rate at RCMP emergency communication centres across the country.

Kathleen Hippern, CUPE Local 104 president, explained those centres as the nerve centre for a crisis, where calls first reporting an emergency are answered, details are calmly gleaned by operators from those affected, and then officers are dispatched, and if needed, calls for back-up are answered.

In Alberta, the RCMP's K-Division has two operational communications centres: one in Edmonton and another in Red Deer.

Previously, both used to work geographically, with the province divided in half to provide coverage to northern and southern regions. Now, the two "back each other up."

PEOPLE DON'T CALL 911 ON A GOOD DAY

"When one centre gets extremely low, the other centre can help a bit, but what's happening right now is they used to have a comfort level of 14 operators," Hippern said. "Now it's half that."

For Hippern, low staffing means operators are responding to more calls than normal and are pressured to rush through calls as queues lengthen.

"People that are waiting in the queue for so long, they are frustrated," she added. "You can't just get off a 911 call… You don't know what is waiting for you. It could be serious, it could be a murder, it could be an active shooter."

"People don't call 911 when they are having a good day."

Staffing levels have become "critical" to the point that there is now a standing overtime policy in effect, Hippern described.

Since operators have to answer more calls, Hippern says many are taking long-term leaves to deal with traumatic events.

"That's not good at all," Hippern said. "It's really frustrating."

In an email to CTV News Edmonton, the RCMP declined an interview but said a statement would be available "early next week."

After becoming unionized in 2015, emergency communication specialists represented by CUPE are now in the process of completing their first collective bargaining agreement. Wages, currently between $51,000 to $67,000, are being reviewed by the federal government.

'LEAVING IN DROVES'

Hippern says while the RCMP was an employer of choice in the past, 911 operators are now "leaving in droves" to do the same work elsewhere, often for salaries that are $20,000 to $30,000 higher and with less workload.

"When it comes to the extra demands of our job and the extra hours and the extra trauma, the extra workload and the nights, evenings and holidays," Hippern said. "People are leaving for other workplaces."

In the past couple of months, Hippern estimates eight operators were lost to the Edmonton Police Service.

"It always feels like we are finding these awesome candidates, we are doing the recruiting," she said, "then we are training them… and then they are off looking for other work."

Carolin Maran, an EPS spokesperson, told CTV News Edmonton the police service has 127 full-time civilians at its emergency dispatch centre.

Sixteen new positions opened in January, Maran added, with now only nine vacancies remaining to be filled.

The collective agreement covering EPS dispatchers has salaries starting at $68,000 and ranging to $86,000. That agreement is also being reviewed by the union and EPS.

Hippern says more competitive wages being offered by other police services and agencies is a national issue the RCMP needs to confront, especially as more senior and experienced operators leave.

"Corporate knowledge to us equals public safety knowledge," she said.

Hippern says RCMP operators are still doing their best but desperately need backup, otherwise, staffing issues and retention rates could become a more serious public safety problem.

"We are in crisis right now," she said. "We don't know what to do anymore."

"The operators still have that sense of wanting to help people, but they are just barely hanging on." 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson

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