Bowen ambulance service outages ignite calls for improved service

Bowen Island ambulance service outages ignite calls for improved service in remote communities

Island community has seen at least 6 service disruptions since November, according to the mayor

Ambulance service disruptions have sparked health and safety concerns on the small community of Bowen Island after it was without ambulance service for hours at least six times over the past few months.

According to the municipality’s mayor, the island had service outages for up to eight hours at least six times since November. The outages come after changes in staffing by B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS).

“We’re absolutely shocked,” said Mayor Gary Ander. “We have a big seniors population on the island, and they’re at risk. And we have some other high-risk people that depend on that ambulance service, and they’re not too happy about what’s going on here.”

Ander says service disruptions have meant some patients in need of medical care waited hours for ambulances to arrive from either Squamish or Lion’s Bay.

“People are very concerned about it, and hopefully we can get this fixed up,” he said.

Last year, BCEHS began shifting away from its on-call model in rural or remote communities in favour of regular scheduled paramedic jobs with employer benefits and set hours. The part-time roles are called scheduled on-call, and the goal was to make rural and remote communities like Bowen Island less reliant on on-call workers.

According to BCEHS, the switch means paramedic positions have been added to Bowen Island so the community can be covered around the clock.

However, it does admit there have been staffing challenges on Bowen “due to a variety of factors including ongoing recruitment for open positions and the availability of current staff,” according to spokesperson Jane Campbell.

Ander has penned a letter to B.C.’s Ministry of Health asking for the “reinstatement of 24/7 ambulance service on Bowen Island.”

“As it stands, Bowen Island residents are still under the impression that there is 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week ambulance service on the island. This lack of communication puts our community at risk, especially those dealing with chronic conditions or potentially emergent situations, such as childbirth or serious motor vehicle accidents,” the letter reads.

CBC News has also reached out to the Ministry of Health for comment.

Challenges in other small communities

Troy Clifford, the president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of B.C. union, says there are similar staffing challenges in other small communities in the province following the move to scheduled on call.

“It’s definitely been proving challenging combined with the need for more paramedics to recruit into the profession,” he told CBC News. “Sadly, I have to report it’s not unique. We’re seeing it on Queen Charlotte, every corner of this province.”

Clifford says adding more full-time jobs with attractive salaries to recruit workers in remote communities is ultimately what’s needed to curb the worker shortage.

“Our belief is we need to expand to full-time, 24-hour ambulances in communities, particularly when they have demographics like Bowen,” said Clifford. “In a lot of those cases, we’re the primary health care in those communities.”

In the case of Bowen Island, BCEHS says under serious circumstances, air ambulances would be made available for patients in need, however the municipality notes weather can complicate transport.