‘This isn’t a heat wave issue’: B.C. paramedics say there’s a systemic crisis in emergency care
More B.C. paramedics are speaking out about what they say is a systemic crisis in the emergency service laid bare by last week’s deadly heat wave.
At least 719 people died in a week during the heat wave, three times what the BC Coroners Service says would be normal for that period. BC Emergency Health Services did not activate its emergency coordination centre until the day the heat began to subside.
“Our entire pre-hospital system collapsed, and it collapsed with warning that it was going to collapse,” a Greater Vancouver paramedic, who Global News is not identifying to protect his employment, said in an interview Friday.
“Government and our organization and our COO, despite all front line paramedics telling them hey we need support, we need upstaffing, failed to listen, they kept saying they will reassess.”
British Columbians have reported hours-long waits for emergency service during the heat wave, and firefighters say desperate people were congregating at fire halls looking for help.
Management with BCEHS refused to recall paramedics because they didn’t want to force anyone to work, the paramedic claimed.
“All the paramedics on the front line are asking for mandatory recall. We want you to pull the paramedics on their vacation, on their time off, to upstaff every single ambulance we have, because we were drowning, we were telling families I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
“The amount of dead people we had to see over that weekend was ridiculous. I’ve heard of crews (that saw) 15 dead people in one day, that’s unacceptable.”
But the paramedic says while the crisis made the cracks in the service visible — they have been there for more than a decade and run deep.
‘This isn’t a heat wave issue’
The paramedic told Global News that one of the major problems first responders have faced for years is the requirement to stay at hospitals with the patients they are transporting until beds or nurses are available.
He said that often results in delays of 30 minutes to several hours, during which they are unavailable to take urgent calls.
“We have eight paramedics at any given time that are held at (Vancouver General Hospital), that are held at Burnaby General, because the nurses are overwhelmed with the amount of patients coming in,” he said.
“Paramedics are all lining up in the ERs and the back hallways and calls keep coming in, but we have no one to send to, so they have to now pull paramedics from different communities to enter a new community to start responding.”
Paramedics understand that hospitals are overwhelmed but management has begun to rely on paramedics as a “hospital relief program,” he argued.
“So that elderly lady with the broken hip who’s been sitting on the ground for three hours? We can’t get there because we’re stuck in the emergency room,” he said.
When paramedics do get back to their ambulance, they’re immediately faced with multiple urgent calls already on hold, he said. Crews need to “hide” from their supervisors and dispatchers to find time for a meal or a bathroom break in a 12-hour shift, he claimed.
The hospital backups are just one element of a toxic mix, including the pandemic and opioid crisis the paramedic claimed has left up to a quarter of the service on leave for stress or post-traumatic stress disorder.
‘You are further from help than you may realize’
In a letter to Global News, another paramedic who works the Sea-to-Sky corridor said they worried staffing shortages in that area could prove deadly this month.
“I encourage everyone to live safely this summer, you are further from help than you may realize,” the letter warns.
For the month of July, the author claims Squamish is short 33 ambulances, Whistler is short 14 and Pemberton is short 73 and has 140 unstaffed shifts.
Part of the problem is that rural paramedics are paid just $2 per hour during on-call shifts when not on a call.
“As it turns out, no one is willing to work for that,” they wrote.
The author writes that in the city, the employer would pay overtime to attract full-time crews to staff shifts.
On-call crews don’t qualify for overtime, they wrote, and management has refused to pay even regular full pay to fill the empty shifts.
The letter goes on to say Pemberton will be without any ambulances overnight for 17 days this month, while day-shift crews will extend themselves to work the legal maximum of 16 hours in a day to cover as much as possible.
On weekends, when serious crashes are most common on the Sea to Sky Highway, there will be no ambulance crews working for the remainder of July, they claimed.
“The fact that no one from management has addressed this yet leaves me feeling defeated,” they wrote.
“Management will tell you that it is a provincial service, and that they move ambulances around to provide coverage for areas that need it. If we have learned nothing from recent events, it is that there are literally no more ambulances to move around.”
‘We need paramedics in a leadership position’
BC Emergency Health Services operates under the umbrella of the Provincial Health Services Authority, a province-wide health authority that runs BC Cancer and BC Children’s Hospital and coordinates specialized health-care services.
It doesn’t belong there, the paramedic Global News interviewed, argued — and should instead be split off and administered by people from within the ambulance service itself, he said.
“We need paramedics in a leadership position — we don’t need hospital administrators, we don’t need suits up at the top, we need paramedics who understand what our work is, paramedics who can lead other paramedics,” he said.
“We’ve lost all faith, we’ve lost trust in our upper echelons right now.”
“We have a systemic issue, and keep being told that, ‘We’re in discussions, we’re working on it, we’re talking to the government,'” the paramedic said.
“Anyone knows in any toxic relationship its all talk and no action, and right now there’s no action.”
‘We must do better’
In an interview with Global News last week, MacKinnon did apologized to families left waiting during the heat wave, while also defending the ambulance service as having done a “good job” during the crisis.
In a statement Friday, the Ministry of Health said the province’s ambulance system had been “tested” in recent weeks, and pledged to improve.
“We must do better and we will do better – for the paramedics and dispatchers who dedicate themselves to protect us and caring for us – and for the British Columbians they serve,” the statement reads.