A Toronto woman says the city needs to fix its 911 system after she was put on hold last week when she called for emergency help while tending to a bleeding man.
Michele Beer, 53, administered first aid to Matthew Marcussen, 29, last Thursday at about 10:20 p.m. in Toronto’s east end. Marcussen was bleeding badly from two cuts to his arm.
Beer says she had to listen to a recorded message at least twice before a dispatcher finally answered her 911 call and it took a full 15 minutes from the time of the initial call to the time that Toronto paramedics arrived. During that time, she was applying pressure to his wounds.
“I was actually a little shocked that they didn’t answer right away,” Beer said.
“I was expecting: ‘911. What’s your emergency?’ And I got: ‘You have reached 911, emergency services. All of our operators are busy. Please hold the line.’ And I was like: ‘What?’ I was holding this man’s arm and keeping him from bleeding. And it looped through three times, which was really concerning to me. It felt like forever. It was going into its third pass when she finally answered.”
Beer says the incident began when she was at home, in a lowrise apartment building in the area of Broadview and Cosburn avenues.
She heard a smash and a cry for help. Marcussen, who was outside, had been knocking on a glass door when he accidentally went through it.
“I ran out. There was this fellow, bleeding profusely from a couple of cuts on his arm, one quite deep,” she said. “I immediately went into action. And I grabbed my phone and I called 911. I made sure he was sitting and taken care of. I had first aid training from many years ago, but it all sort of came in.”
The dispatcher gave Beer instructions, told her to call back if she needed more assistance, and then the dispatcher hung up. After what seemed like several minutes, Beer said paramedics arrived and took him to hospital. Marcussen ended up receiving 33 stitches to his arm.
Beer admits she was in a “heightened sense of panic” but says it was a good thing that she has first aid training. She was a corporal for St. John Ambulance for five years. “I knew to put pressure on the wound,” she said.
For his part, Marcussen says there was a lot of blood and he is very grateful that Beer was there. “Yeah, it was crazy,” he said. “A lot of people would have just fainted if they had seen that.”
Wait time for 911 operator was 38 seconds, police say
According to Toronto police records, however, the wait time for a 911 operator in this case was only 38 seconds.
Const. Victor Kwong, spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, wrote in an email to CBC Toronto on Monday that police looked into Beer’s concerns.
“We do understand her sense of urgency, and how it might have felt like a lifetime waiting on hold,” Kwong said in the email.
“We always strive to improve our service. As our recent hires of communication operators gain experience, their numbers and efficiency will help reduce wait times.”
Kim McKinnon, public information officer for Toronto Paramedic Services, says the service is investigating the response time but may not be able to release it due to patient confidentiality. Paramedics took the patient in serious but non-life-threatening condition to a local hospital, she added.
She says the amount of time it takes for paramedics to arrive depends on the nature and severity of injuries because the service operates on a triage system.
When asked about the case Monday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city has hired 53 new 911 operators and all are undergoing lengthy and rigorous training. The city wants to make sure they are well trained, he said.
“Sometimes, people are put on hold, for example, because the operator is getting help from somebody else. They try to stay there with them, but they are oftentimes doing something very constructive while they are dealing with people on hold,” Tory said.
“It is a work in progress, a day by day thing — something you can always do better.”
According to city budget documents, the paramedic response time to life-threatening emergencies in Toronto is roughly within 11.8 minutes, about 90 per cent of the time.
This year, paramedics are expected to respond to an estimated 337,265 medical emergencies, a number that represents a four per cent increase over the 2018 projection of 324,293 emergencies.
CUPE Local 416, which represents Toronto paramedics, has said that response times to emergency calls in Toronto have been hovering at about 40 cent higher than provincial guidelines, which suggest they should be around 8.7 minutes.