Pitt Meadows residents will hear Monday that their on-call firefighters attend fewer medical emergency calls than fire departments in other cities.
However, the union that represents paramedics says ambulance response times have improved across the Lower Mainland with staffing increases and other efficiencies.
And union president Cameron Eby says Pitt Meadows residents can expect faster response times with a rest-and-ready ambulance station that’s coming to the city.
The special meeting is set for Monday at 7-9 p.m. at city hall, and will be a presentation by Pitt Meadows Fire and Rescue to offer facts about the department’s paid-on-call model, call volume, major incidents and medical call responses and current challenges.
A question-and-answer period will follow the presentation.
New Mayor Bill Dingwall has been a proponent of hiring two new full-time firefighters, at a cost of about $250,000 per year, and increasing the number of medical emergencies the department attends. There are currently five full-time members and 35 paid-on-call.
Dingwall said Pitt Meadows was compared with eight other cities in the 2016 Summary Report on Fire Rescue Services. That report found the paid-on-call staffing model works well, results in excellent response times, excellent turnout at calls, and low operating costs – an estimated one-third of what it would cost to run a career staffed department.
However, Dingwall said one of the revelations on Monday will be that the local department responds to fewer medical emergencies than the other cities in the study, based on service levels set by city hall.
Paramedics do respond to all medical emergencies.
Eby, president of CUPE 873, said in the most serious calls, where a life is in danger and seconds count, it is an obvious benefit to have firefighters responding. These are situations where a firefighter can do CPR, use a defibrillator, stop a significant bleed, or clear an airway and offer rescue breathing, he added.
“First responders have a role, for sure, if they can get there faster than the paramedics,” he said, adding that in most cities firefighters do have faster response times than paramedics because there are more of them, and more fire halls.
He said life-threatening emergencies represent about two per cent of all calls in Pitt Meadows.
For the other 98 per cent of calls, Eby said patient outcomes may not be improved by a firefighter arriving minutes ahead of a paramedic.
“If there’s a concern that there’s a delay in getting to those patients in the Pitt Meadows area … then we need to address that by looking at the staffing levels for paramedics,” he said. “They [the provincial government] have added staffing, and it certainly helps.”
In 2016, the province added another ambulance in Maple Ridge and Coquitlam as part of its province-wide paramedic staffing increase.
Eby added that fast firefighter responses are absolutely necessary for rescue situations, hazardous materials calls and vehicle extrication.
He said B.C. Ambulance now has some of the best response times for immediately life-threatening calls in the country.
Eby said the new rest-and-ready stop is like a satellite ambulance station. He works in one in Comox and said it will help Pitt Meadows ambulance service, with ambulances in the community and responding more rapidly.
“I would confidently say that, yes, that means there is going to be better response times.”
He also pointed out that the difference in the level of medical training between firefighters and paramedics is considerable. While most firefighters get a one-week course in emergency medical response, paramedics at the first level, primary, get a year of schooling, and that will be increasing to two years in 2019. Advanced care paramedics now take three years of training, and that will increase to four.
Eby said there is a balance to be struck between what cities can afford, and the value of increasing service levels. Some municipalities have firefighters attend medical emergencies simply because they already have career firefighters on duty.
“We have to look at the evidence, and that includes patient outcomes.”
Dingwall said there will also be other issues explored, such as attracting and retaining firefighters, and coverage of the city during times when paid on-call firefighters are outside of the community.