A tree blocks a lane in Surrey after a severe wind storm in late August knocked out power to more than 500,000 homes across the Lower Mainland.

High 911 call fail rate during storm

Non-emergency calls bog down E-Comm system, NDP says review should look at tracking, educating violators

About 40 per cent of attempted calls to 911 rang busy during the major wind storm that walloped the Lower Mainland Aug. 29.

E-Comm spokesperson Jody Robertson said the emergency communications centre had five times as many staff on as usual that Saturday afternoon but the 30 call takers were overwhelmed by the heavy volume of 911 calls, many for non-emergencies, including queries about power outages.

With the winter storm season now approaching, E-Comm and its partner response agencies are continuing to review the summer incident to determine what, if anything, could be done to improve 911 performance.

“Are there any potential technical or operational changes that might help to mitigate the impacts of mass calling events? That’s actively being looked at right now,” Robertson said.

At the peak of the summer storm, E-Comm handled 600 calls in one hour that actually got through, up from a normal 100.

“This was the biggest one time-surge in 911 call volume we’ve ever experienced,” Robertson said.

She said she’s not aware of any true emergencies that were worsened because of any delays in response due to the jammed lines.

E-Comm knew many 911 callers weren’t getting through and took to social media to urge residents not to call unless they had a true emergency.

But numerous calls still flooded in to report power outages, ask when service would be restored or report downed trees that posed no imminent risk.

“Our experience is any time there’s a power outage, even if it’s a small one, we get these calls,” Robertson said.

In California, 911 misuse draws a warning followed by potential fines that escalate from $50 to $250.

But E-Comm staff here make no record of which calls were inappropriate, so there’s no capability to flag those frivolous or nuisance callers for follow-up education or enforcement.

NDP justice critic Mike Farnworth said he’d like habitual violators at least tracked and sent educational information, and to have research done on potential enforcement best practices from other jurisdictions.

“Those are steps you could take,” Farnworth said. “Information being sent out is not a bad idea. For many people, education may be all it takes.”

Heavy call volumes during a major incident can further bog down E-Comm staff because of the protocol they must follow.

That’s because a 911 caller who doesn’t immediately reach a call taker gets a recording instructing them to stay on the line.

Some of them may get frustrated with the wait and hang up, Robertson said, but their phone numbers stay in the queue and the next available operator must then call back to ensure each dropped caller is okay and not incapacitated or threatened.

“That further creates backlog,” Robertson said. “It’s really important that people don’t hang up.”

She was unable to say how much effect that had on Aug. 29, or how many on-hold calls were dropped in addition to the 40 per cent of calls that got busy signals and didn’t connect at all.

Telus deployed diesel backup generators or batteries to keep its phone systems operational, spokesman Shawn Hall said, adding that wasn’t a factor affecting 911 access.

He said public education is key.

“There’s no 911 system in the world that can take thousands of calls all at one time and answer them.”

Minister of State for Emergency Preparedness Naomi Yamamoto said the wind storm was a “good wakeup call” and the 40 per cent call failure rate that day was “not acceptable.”

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