BC Ambulance needs to step up so Prince Rupert firefighters can step back – City Council

Driving ambulances keeps firefighters from main task, services should be invoiced – Chief Beckwith

City firefighters are claiming additional workload and potential dangers due to BC Ambulance Service (BCAS) struggling to provide appropriately staffed emergency vehicles. The situation is affecting patient transport and pre-hospital care within the community of Prince Rupert.

In a report to the city council on July 20, Fire Chief Jeff Beckwith stated the burden has left firefighters driving ambulances while single attendee paramedics assist patients and BCAS should bear this cost of service.

Beckwith’s report states the community has been left numerous times during the past year without ambulance service, and at times Skeena Taxi service has been authorized to transport patients.

“These situations occur when BCAS ambulances are tasked out of the community to conduct patient transfers or due to staffing shortages. More frequently, an ambulance may arrive to a medical incident with only one paramedic, requiring firefighters to drive an ambulance with a patient to the hospital,” Beckwith wrote.

As a result, long delays have occurred for patients needing transport to the hospital and, at various times, ambulances being sent from Terrace or Kitimat. Firefighters will monitor patients while waiting for an ambulance but at times have been in attendance for up to three hours.

Councillor Wade Niesh said the situation bothers him, and apart from the burden on firefighters, there is a burden on taxpayers.

“I do feel that the ambulance service needs to step up. They need to hire more people to take care of the job that they are supposed to take care of. I don’t want to see our firefighters burn out from doing someone else’s job. I think that they should be tasked first with doing their own job and be there as a backup to help,” Niesh said.

Since April, there have been 68 incidents resulting in overtime from firefighters driving ambulances and delays on the scene. Beckwith said this creates a significant cost to the city and strains resources.

“Placing a firefighter as a driver in an ambulance takes the employee out of service as a firefighter and depletes the crew’s ability to mount a fire/rescue response. These situations may result in overtime call-backs of off-duty firefighters to replenish staffing levels,” the chief explained.

In early July, Prince Rupert firefighters attended four medical patients at three different incidents simultaneously, resulting in back-to-back calls and the need to preserve fire rescue response by backfilling the station. With no ambulances available, BCAS authorized Skeena Taxi to transport patients to the hospital, the report stated. During this time, a structure fire broke out, and the last available PRFR crew needed to be called in.

“Due to firefighters being tied up with medical incidents, the department was nearly unable to organize a fire rescue response. The inability of BCAS to provide service in the community is compounding through increased costs to the city and stress on the firefighters who are unable to transport critical patients,” Beckwith wrote.

While firefighters are trained to emergency responder certification levels so they can transport patients, the city fire apparatus vehicles are not licensed to transport patients. Firefighters are not permitted to drive an ambulance without a paramedic in attendance due to BCAS policy, but non-ambulance employees may do so in extreme situations only, Beckwith stated.

“There have been assurances for two years that BCAS will hire more paramedics, but changes are not visible,” the fire chief stated, adding the grappling with staffing issues of BC Ambulance is felt across the province.

“If the ambulance service requires firefighters to drive their vehicles, they should provide complete coverage for the firefighter driving in the same way they provide coverage for their own employees. Also, since driving an ambulance is not considered patient care, it should be considered a request for service,” Beckwith’s report reads, mentioning that in 2021 the City of Prince Rupert successfully invoiced BC Emergency Health Services for firefighters attending. However, in 2022 the next invoice requesting payment was declined.

The fire chief requested city council’s support in the bill-back of services and that PRFR consider responding to and attending only the most critical of events to preserve fire rescue in the community.

City Council agreed to this by passing a resolution to the effect and that they would pursue an invoicing agreement.