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B.C. promises more paramedics, dispatchers, ambulances after deadly heatwave

Last Updated Jul 14, 2021 at 7:44 pm PDT

FILE - A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face shield, an N95 mask and gloves communicates with a colleague moving a patient from an ambulance to the emergency department at Royal Columbian Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on April 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

B.C. says 85 paramedics and 30 dispatchers will be hired after hundreds of people died in a heatwave a few weeks ago

Health Minister Adrian Dix says 22 new ambulances are coming to B.C.

Province says BCEHS board will 'focus solely on ambualnce services'

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The province says dozens more staff members will be hired to provide ambulatory care in B.C., after hundreds of lives were lost during a recent heatwave due to a gap in service.

Health Minister Adrian Dix says 85 new full-time paramedics and 30 full-time dispatchers will be hired. He also says the province will bring in 22 new ambulances.

The number of deaths tripled in the last week of June, in a period when temperatures rose into the 40s.

The BC Coroners Service said over a seven-day period from Friday, June 25 through Thursday, July 1, 719 deaths were reported. It is believed the extreme weather was a significant contributing factor to the threefold increase in deaths.

Many of those who died were seniors living alone.

A flood of calls to 911 resulted in long wait times for people who required emergency services, and compounded the ongoing problem of lengthy ambulance wait times.

“[We] were averaging, pre-pandemic, 1,540 calls [per day],” Dix said. “Yesterday, the lowest day in seven, we had 1,711 calls. You can see the demands on our ambulance paramedics”

The province says 22 rural ambulance stations will be converted to facilities that provide round-the-clock service.

Dix argues the median response time has come down in recent years, adding he’s aiming to see a response time of no more than nine minutes for “purple” calls, which are the highest priority.

“That’s a reasonable standard,” he said.

A chief ambulance officer will now lead BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS), with Clinical Nurse Specialist Leanne Heppel appointed on an interim basis.

Former Vancouver Police chief Jim Chu has also been appointed to chair BCEHS’ board of directors, which has been directed to “focus solely on ambulance services.”

The province says the board will be “directly accountable” to Dix, with a “clear mandate to ensure better service for patients and families … and better supports for workers who deliver the service.”

On Wednesday, Dix also defended B.C. health authorities’ messaging about how dangerous the heatwave could be.

“Health authorities did deliver that message. We can we can discuss whether they delivered enough, but they absolutely delivered that message in places such as long-term care,” he said.

“In long-term care, in home support, in acute care, the response in emergency rooms, the response across the health care system, I can tell you, was very strong … The heat that we faced, particularly indoors in buildings without air conditioning, was something that we have never seen by a significant margin,” Dix added, acknowledging this latest heatwave was far more severe than the one in 2009.

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In an open letter this week, the BCAS 10-7 Association Society, which represents retired employees of the BC Ambulance Service, said issues within the organization have existed for a long time, and came to a head in June.

“We have watched our colleagues suffer through these ill-conceived, damaging changes. The unimaginably long waits for service and negative patient outcomes as a result of a poorly managed system are inexcusable. We say enough is enough,” the letter reads.

The province is promising to provide workers with mental health and wellness supports to address things like chronic stress and fatigue, including trauma-informed therapy.

With B.C. now seeing low COVID-19 case numbers, the province says it will return to “pre-COVID-19 first-responder dispatching practices for 911.”

Head of ambulance paramedic union ‘cautiously optimistic’ 

Troy Clifford, President of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC, says he and his members are hopeful after Tuesday’s announcement — but implementation will be key.

“My first reaction is optimism that we’ve been heard, the public’s been heard, and that [the province] has put a structure in place to move ahead and address many of the challenges we’ve been facing, and that the paramedics and dispatchers have been calling out for help on,” he says.

“I think that paramedics are traditional and dispatchers are traditionally cynical because they’ve seen a lot of promises that that necessarily haven’t come to fruition. So they’re going to be cautiously optimistic right now.They’re, they’re frustrated, they’re fatigued, and they want to see immediate impacts on them and their workplace, and their wellness.”

Clifford says he’s committed to working with the province to “bridge the gap” while new ambulances are commissioned and staff hired.

At the end of the day, I have confidence this team will look at everything and put the right people in place, if changes need to be made — they will make them,” he says.

“The province” [has put a structure in place and a leadership team that he says will be responsible for reviewing everything within the ambulance service and holding people accountable, and I think we all need to look at what we can do better, what we’ve done.”

With files from Renee Bernard, Lisa Steacy, Claire Fenton, Vanessa Doban, and Tamara Slogogean