Thousands of calls flood 9-1-1 centre during surprise windstorm

The sudden and unexpected fierce windstorm that blew through Metro Vancouver on August 29 has been described as the worst in a decade for power outages and damage. It also caused the single largest surge in 9-1-1 calls in a compressed timeframe in E-Comm’s 16-years of operation.

At the storm’s peak, E-Comm staff fielded more than 600 calls in one hour. Over the course of the afternoon, the call volume topped more than 1,800– more than triple that of a typical Saturday. Because of the size and scope of the E-Comm consolidated centre, on-duty managers were able to quickly assign additional resources to help with the influx of calls.

In mass calling events such as this, there are two things that can occur: busy signals and recorded announcements. Busy signals happen when there is congestion on the 9-1-1 network and as a result, calls do not reach the 9-1-1 centre. Recorded announcements occur once a call has reached a 9-1-1 centre, but the number of calls outnumbers the available call-takers.  In the case of a busy signal, callers should hang up and keep trying if they have an emergency. In the case of recorded announcements, callers are advised they have reached 9-1-1 and to stay on the line as their call will be answered as soon as possible.

Due to the huge number of 9-1-1 calls staff were answering on the day of the storm, E-Comm used social media to ask people to refrain from calling 9-1-1 unless they had a true emergency, as staff were being inundated with non-emergency calls. On the day of the storm, staff were receiving in addition to emergencies in need of first responders, calls reporting power outages, asking for restoration information or reporting damage posing little or no risk to public safety.

9-1-1 systems are designed for individual, day-to-day emergencies where immediate action from police, fire or ambulance is required because someone’s life, health or safety is in jeopardy, there is smoke or fire or a crime in progress. Although E-Comm is a large, consolidated communications centre able to scale up resources when needed, mass simultaneous calling such as this will create congestion as staff attempt to transfer 9-1-1 callers to the agencies they have requested.  9-1-1 is a system that has many facets and involves many partners, each with a role to ensure its effectiveness. 

“As part of our post-incident review process launched immediately after the windstorm, we’ve been discussing the impacts with TELUS, the 9-1-1 network provider for most of British Columbia, and our emergency service partners,” says Doug Watson, vice-president of Operations. “We’re examining a number of potential technical and operational changes that might help to provide increased service to the public in these rare, but massive call volume situations in the future.”

Personal preparedness and public education are also key.  “We have all seen the effects of disasters like hurricanes Sandy and Katrina and earthquakes around the world,” Watson explains. “We all need to prepare ourselves for these situations as emergency services are going to be heavily burdened and telecommunications and power outages are anticipated.”