Police chief asks for $1.8M to hire more 911 staff
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Winnipeg’s police chief wants more funding to hire 911 call operators and dispatchers as call volumes increase and staff burn out.
Danny Smyth has asked the Winnipeg Police Board for a $1.8 million funding increase in the upcoming city budget to hire 18 additional people over the next two years.
The communications centre budget was $13.8 million in 2022. The total Winnipeg Police Service budget for 2022 was about $320 million.
The centre is operated by police civilian employees, but also takes 911 calls and dispatches responders for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.
In a newsletter article Monday, the chief said call volumes have steadily increased over the past decade with no increases in staff to offset it. In 2017, the call centre received 585,984 calls, compared to 713,093 in 2022, which has affected the 93 employees, Smyth said.
“We’re starting to show signs of stress in there that are a little bit alarming for me in terms of sick leave, in terms of overtime, in terms of attrition — not the healthiest place that I think it could be, and part of that is because the strain that they’re under,” he said in an interview.
Among the increase in calls are those for violent crimes in progress, he said.
“To put that into perspective or context, those are the people who are triaging or screening the calls, and oftentimes they’re dealing with people who are calling in in real time and experiencing the trauma with the caller,” he said.
Without an increase in staffing, responses to 911 calls could fall below standards, he said. Calls are supposed to be answered within 15 seconds 90 per cent of the time, and within 20 seconds 95 per cent of the time.
Smyth said he requested the funding increase in the fall and it has been approved in principle by the police board, but the source of the money has not been decided. The upcoming draft city budget will be published next month.
Police board chairman Coun. Markus Chambers told reporters the board has discussed the matter, but it’s part of the ongoing budget process. Asked whether the police service should find the money internally, he said that would also be part of the budgeting process.
The city needs staff available to answer 911 calls, but also should find ways to reduce calls overall, he added.
Smyth floated the idea of using mobile phone surcharges to pay for the additional people, which would see a fee added to monthly cellphone plans. The 911 service funding structure is in place in all provinces except Manitoba and Ontario, he said.
An online overview from mobile provider Bell shows fees range from $1.95 monthly in Saskatchewan to 43 cents in Nova Scotia.
Implementing a cellphone fee would not be under the city’s purview and would require a provincial legislative change, Smyth said.
It’s not a “crazy idea,” considering other provinces have a surcharge in place, Mayor Scott Gillingham said.
“We’re really close to completing our 2023 draft budget so… the discussion wouldn’t happen this year,” the mayor said, adding any mobile phone fee would be discussed during the 2024 multi-year budget.
The police service’s budget accounted for about 26.8 per cent of the overall civic budget last year.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Transportation and Infrastructure said the province has not received a formal request from the city or police on the matter, but that the department is “always open to proposals and discussions on how to improve the services that Manitobans rely on.”
— with files from Joyanne Pursaga
Erik Pindera reports for the city desk, with a particular focus on crime and justice.
Updated on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 8:21 PM CST: Changes photo