Every minute counts, but Langley ambulances are slower than key targets
The recent heat wave led to hour-long waits for ambulances across the Lower Mainland, but slow response times are nothing new in Langley. Provincial data provided to The Current shows residents there wait longer for a response to the most serious calls than almost anywhere else in the province. The community’s ambulance responses fall far short of provincial standards, and have only gotten worse through the start of 2021.
The provincial response time target for high-priority ambulances in urban areas is 9 minutes. But in Langley, the average caller waits considerably longer than that—and that can be fatal when every minute counts. Paramedics say a lack of resources and a broken recruitment model are to blame, with many ambulances left unstaffed.
Langley’s average response time for the most-pressing calls in 2020 was 11 minutes, 15 seconds. Among 22 communities with more than 5,000 ambulance calls last year, only Delta had a slower response time (11:20). Both Abbotsford (8:42) and Chilliwack (8:55) had response times below the 9-minute standard. Mission’s response time was 9:26.
Langley’s response times are indicative of a broad inability to meet provincial standards in the Metro Vancouver area. Of 10 Metro Vancouver communities with more than 5,000 calls, only in Vancouver itself did ambulance service meet the 9-minute target. Nine suburbs failed. The lagging response times have been an issue since at least 2017, the numbers show.
In Langley, response times have gotten even worse. The average response times have exceeded last year’s average in each of the first 5 months of 2021. It has been higher than 12 minutes in 3 of those months.
Concerns about ambulance responses in Metro Vancouver began to surface earlier this year, with people reporting long waits for serious matters. The issue flared during last week’s heat wave, when record temperatures left many in distress, overwhelmed the 9-1-1 call centre, and taxed ambulance resources. A Richmond family waited on hold for hours for an ambulance after a 77-year-old woman stopped breathing. Fortunately, she survived with help from her family.
Troy Clifford, the president of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC, said more planning is needed for such events. "We deal with emergencies and adversity. We know we can’t predict them, but we can plan for them."
Earlier this year, the APBC drew attention to the fact that large numbers of ambulances frequently go unstaffed in Lower Mainland stations because of a lack of manpower. That shortage, Clifford said, is linked to recruitment problems. New paramedics hired by Emergency Health Services, which runs BC’s ambulance system, are sent to rural stations in the Interior. But those gigs are relatively lowly paid, because they tend to operate on an on-call system where workers get $2/hour to be ready to go. (Many government organizations use similar recruitment models in order to staff places for which they would otherwise have difficulty finding workers.) Paramedics can find other employers in the Lower Mainland and other desirable areas for their services, Clifford said, and the recruitment model isn’t working any more. The result is that people wait longer than they should for ambulances, while paramedics racing from call to call are increasingly stressed and taxed.
"We’re seeing many paramedics seeking support for psychological injuries through our critical incident stress management program," he said. The heat wave is just the latest of a string of emergencies to put pressure on the ambulance system and paramedics themselves; the COVID pandemic is another, as is the toxic drug crisis that has been growing for more than 5 years.
Paramedics are trying their best, Clifford said. But a variety of structural and resource issues are at play. He said the Fraser Valley’s rapid population growth hasn’t been matched with more resources. Paramedics have to travel long distances in the region to get to calls, and are frequently tied up at the region’s busy hospitals. And new paramedic stations aren’t being built, leaving resources scattered at large distances. Langley has 2 stations, Abbotsford has 2, Chilliwack has 1, and Agassiz has another.
"The distance between communities is incredible. And when you’re talking response times that’s really [important]. We really haven’t added any ambulances or resources in those communities to keep pace with the growth," he said. "That’s really the biggest thing. We’re seeing increased calls, increased population, and not increased numbers of ambulances and paramedics to support that growth."
The Current asked Emergency Health Services for comment on what is being done to improve response times in Langley but did not receive a response as of our deadline.