'I've never seen this': Ambulance call volumes set records during heat wave
VANCOUVER -- When a 77-year-old man was suffering from a heart attack, his family set out to take him to the hospital, but they didn't quite make it.
“For whatever reason they may have had difficulty getting through the 911 system, and so they were transporting that person to the hospital,” said Vancouver fire chief Karen Fry.
But on the way, they pulled into the driveway of a fire station. All the fire crews were out on calls, but for a few chief officers. They performed CPR on the man, but he didn’t make it and died.
“That’s just a really good example of some of the tragedies that we’re seeing in our community,” said Fry.
This during a weekend heatwave, that has caused ambulance calls to spike to record numbers, and resulted in long wait times.
“It was taking up to five minutes just to get through to a human being, one of our members that answers the 911 line,” said Donald Grant, president of Emergency Communications Professionals of BC. “And then even further to that, to get through to the service they need such as the emergency police line, it was taking up to 40 minutes.”
Vancouver Fire had a crew on scene of a non-emergency medical call for more than 12 hours Tuesday, for someone who was dehydrated.
“They’re non-ambulatory which means that they can’t drive themselves to a hospital and they need to attend a hospital,” said Fry. “We talk about burn out, and mental stress and feeling helpless and we see that with extreme events, we see that with the overdose crisis.”
Grant said the surge in calls started on Friday, and they’ve been back-to-back ever since.
According to the BC Emergency Health Services, June 28 saw a record high for 911 calls with paramedics responding to 1,975 medical emergencies. Meanwhile 911 dispatchers have been receiving more than 3,000 calls a day, which is more than double the usual.
Numbers from the BCEHS show during this heat wave between Friday and Monday morning, paramedics responded to 187 calls for heat exhaustion and 52 calls for heat stroke.
Part of the problem, is a staffing shortage, something being seen also within the paramedics union.
“We don’t have capacity to deal with the high spikes like this,” said Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of BC. “I’ve never seen this this bad.”
He acknowledged the province has been hiring more full time staff, but he says they still need more, and there are still ambulance vehicles sitting parked that could otherwise be out on the road.
“Every year without these exceptions we increase by six percent on average call volumes,” said Clifford. “This is not a new problem.”
Health Minister Adrian Dix was asked about the heat wave during a news conference, and said they’ve been hiring paramedics and will continue to do so, with more positions being posted July 2.
“Every ambulance system is going to be tested by this kind of record day,” he said. “It is profound and challenging.”
Dix said he knows that staff are, “working flat out, and it feels like working flat out after a year and a half of working flat out after, in the case of the overdose public health emergency, you know, five years working flat out.”
Fire fighters, who often arrive to calls first, can end up in a difficult situation in a surge like this. If they’re on a medical call and there’s a structure fire, crews may be forced to make the difficult decision to leave the patient waiting for an ambulance alone.
“We are seeing you know 200 per cent increase in our call volume,” said Fry. “Normally we would respond to about 80 medical incidents a day. On Sunday it was about 150 and last night (on Monday when the heat was even worse) it was 250.”
She said she worries about burn out and mental health when it comes to extreme events, including this heat wave and the opioid crisis.
The current situation, she says, means they’re not able to give callers an estimate on how long it will take them to arrive.
“There are no ETAs. (BC) Ambulance has identified that they have limited resources and as well have seen as well a 200 percent increase in calls for their service. At this point we’re not being given ETAs,” said Fry.
The health minitser explained that they are working to transform the ambulance system into the 21st century.
“Our ambulance paramedics are as always responding to it well and we have to continue to support them by adding resources again, and again, and again, and that's what we intend to do,” said Dix.
The BCEHS is adding more than 500 permanent positions throughout the province this year.