Paramedics delayed in critical response

More concerns raised about coast guard base closure after man suffers fatal heart attack on freighter.


April 13, 2013 at 4:43 PM


VANCOUVER -- Critics of the Kits Coast Guard Station closure have another reason to be concerned: Slow responses by paramedics to medical emergencies on the water.

A sailor on a cargo ship in English Bay died of a heart attack Thursday afternoon, the first such case since the Kits closure. And while critics don't know whether the sailor might have lived had rescue crews arrived faster, they are alarmed by the lengthy response times.

It took an estimated 40 minutes for paramedics to reach the 200-metre freighter on a Vancouver police boat after the distress call was made at 4:05 p.m., according to the Victoria Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre.

VPD spokesman Const. Brian Montague said the department is concerned that as the number of craft on the water increases for the summer, city police could be overwhelmed with calls for help that traditionally went to the Coast Guard.

Paramedics are routinely sent to vessels off Vancouver and usually had been transported by the Coast Guard boat from Kits. Thursday was the first time since the February closure of the Kits station that paramedics had to rely on the VPD to pick them up, ironically at the defunct Kits station's dock.

Bronwyn Barter, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., said paramedics relied heavily on the Kits Coast Guard.

"(The closure) is very unfortunate. Generally, minutes and seconds can make the difference between life and death." she said. "Kits Coast Guard was a huge resource for us. They were more set up for paramedic transport than the VPD boat."

Barter said when there is a medical emergency on the water, paramedics are usually transported out to the vessel because that is the fastest way to provide emergency medical care. She said paramedics have more life-saving equipment and training than members of the Coast Guard.

Kelsey Carwithen, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Ambulance Service, said paramedics were instructed by the Victoria rescue centre to meet the VPD at the old Kits station. She said three paramedics waited at the dock for 15 minutes for the VPD boat to arrive from its base at the foot of Main Street in Burrard Inlet.

Bill Tieleman, a spokesman for the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, said that responders from the Kits base would have made it to the victim in 10 minutes instead of the 25 minutes it took the Coast Guard to get to the freighter from its Sea Island base in Richmond.

The Sea Island Coast Guard hovercraft arrived at the ship within 25 minutes and officers started performing CPR, said Jeff Olsson of Victoria's Joint Rescue Coordination Centre. The ambulance paramedics arrived about 20 minutes later.

Montague said the police operate one small boat and a larger nine-metre vessel, the RG McBeath, which is the department's main patrol boat. The McBeath, named for an officer killed in the line of duty in 1922, is the only VPD vessel big enough to transport paramedics or firefighters and their equipment.

Montague would not say about how many officers are on duty at the police dock, at the foot of Main Street, nor could he say whether the patrol boat was staffed when Thursday's emergency call came in.

"We're not equipped for (medical emergencies) and it's not our mandate," he said,

The VPD marine unit patrol covers 160 kilometres of shoreline and dozens of marinas.

"We'll have to prioritize calls. It's very difficult to speculate what could happen. If you get one call and it's someone breaking into a boat and the o ther call involves a human life, obviously human safety becomes a priority.... There are concerns."

In November, Vancouver police chief Jim Chu wrote a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying that closing the Kits base would put lives at risk.

Montague was not aware of any department requests made to the city for extra resources to help police cope as traffic on the water increases for the summer

"There are a lot of unanswered questions right now. So we'll have to wait and see how it all plays out," he said.


With files from Mike Hager

Category: Public