B.C. paramedics sounding alarm over ‘dire’ holiday staffing shortages

B.C. paramedics sounding alarm over ‘dire’ holiday staffing shortages

FILE – B.C. paramedics are sounding the alarm on staffing shortages as it approaches the busy holiday season.

The president of the union that represents paramedics in B.C. is sounding the alarm, saying they’re worried about patient wait times heading into the holidays.

Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of BC, says they’re seeing more serious calls right now than they were during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Progressively our call volumes have been going up. Post-COVID, we’ve seen a continuing rise of call volumes, and interesting, and more worrisome, is that the higher acuity calls have been rising, which is the most serious calls — to heart attack, the short[ness of] breath, the strokes, cardiac arrest,” he told CityNews Thursday.

Wait times for ambulances are rising every day across the province, he says. However, specifically in the Lower Mainland, Clifford notes there aren’t enough paramedics to cover the shifts available.

“So due to our recruitment and retention issue, we’re seeing that it is particularly worse on weekends and evenings, and, you know, quite frankly, it’s dire.”

“We’re leading into the holiday season, which is a traditionally higher call volume time, when unfortunately we see addictions and mental health calls rise over the holidays, because of the isolation that some people seek and that they’re see are seeing … and it’s just a traditionally a busier time,” he said.

Clifford says the union has been concerned about the escalating situation for the last year, but particularly over the last couple of months “where we’re seeing significant out-of-service levels with not enough paramedics to fill the seats that are empty.”

“We’re seeing 30, 40 per cent of our ambulances on the weekend and evenings parked with no paramedics to work. And that’s getting worse and not getting better,” he said.

The national benchmark for ambulance response to high acuity calls is 8.59 minutes, Clifford says, and in the City of Burnaby, it’s currently averaging over 11 minutes.

In a statement from the Health Employers Association of BC, CEO Michael McMillan says:

“HEABC is currently at the bargaining table with the Ambulance Paramedics and Ambulance Dispatchers Bargaining Association and BCEHS, and negotiations under the province’s Shared Recovery Mandate are ongoing. The employer bargaining committee remains committed to productive and collaborative negotiations in support of improvements to public health care

“Most places in the Lower Mainland, we’re not seeing those benchmarks. But we all know that 8.59 or 11 minutes is an eternity when you’re waiting for an ambulance when you’re in a critical situation and you’re waiting for help,” he said. “We know that in cardiac arrest, serious emergency intervention is needed in minutes because heart muscle and strokes cause serious patient outcomes in minutes. So even though that’s the average target, we need to get to those calls in within a couple of minutes to make sure that we can have the best possible chance for survival and outcomes.”

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the flu are not only hitting children and their families at the moment — Clifford notes that paramedics are also off work sick, along with other health care professionals.

“The RSV is a real nasty, really bad situation that we’re experiencing, and we’re hearing about children’s hospital, but hospitals across the province are filling up with RSV, children, and adolescents, and the flu bug is really, really hitting hard across this province.”

Since Oct. 3, the union has been at the bargaining table with the province negotiating a new collective agreement. Clifford says so far,  bargaining talks haven’t resulted in much progress, with the union pushing for wage parity with other public service partners, a new on-call wage model, and increased mental health and wellness supports.

B.C. paramedics sounding alarm over ‘dire’ holiday staffing shortages