Union president discusses need for increased ambulance service

On Tuesday, Aug. 11, at about 2:30 p.m.Gary Fairhurst and a group of his friends were teeing off at the Kimberley Golf Course when one of his friends had what they believed to be a stroke.

Fairhurst dialed 911, but to their dismay, it took 21.5 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

The Bulletin reached out to Troy Clifford, provincial president of the union that represents Ambulance Paramedics & Emergency Dispatchers of BC for his insight on why wait times like this can happen in Kimberley.

Clifford, who covers paramedics throughout the entire province, knows the area well, having spent some years living in Cranbrook and Kimberley.

“One of the biggest changes in that community was when they shutdown the emergency and all patients had to go to Cranbrook,” he said, referring to the hospital closure in 2002, part of widespread cuts of the then BC Liberal government. “That hindered our ability to turn around in that community from a call to a call.”

He said that resulted in longer call durations for emergency responders, and what they’re currently seeing now is increased call volumes.

When Gary Fairhurst dialed 911, all of Kimberley’s two and Cranbrook’s three ambulances were occupied in Cranbrook.

“On the time in question, both Kimberley ambulances were in Cranbrook following up on calls so that’s why they were unavailable in Kimberley,” Clifford said.

“Within the same timeframes, I understand all three Cranbrook ambulances were busy as well so we had all ambulances on runs or on calls during that timeframe.”

Clifford said that another factor impacting response time on this particular day was that after completing their call in Cranbrook, one of the Kimberley ambulances was involved in a minor motor vehicle incident, putting them out of service.

“It’s almost like there were so many circumstances that happened at once here, an abundance of calls that came in at the same time in both communities,” Clifford said. “It’s an unacceptable delay in any emergency from our perspective.”

Currently, Clifford says that what his union is seeing across the province as well as here in the East Kootenay is an increase in call volumes, without an increase in resources.

“That’s one of the things we’re working with the government, the health authorities and our employer on is trying to modify our service delivery model so that we can have better service delivery,” he said.

The union has been putting pressure on to make sure that communities like Kimberley, which can have longer run times, has the resources in place to prevent stories such as this from occurring.

“That’s a question for the ambulance service, why do we not put a replacement ambulance in here when all of our resources are tied up?” Clifford said. “And that’s our expectation is that, in this situation it might have been difficult because you have no ambulance available, which goes to a bigger concern, that’s a fairly significant situation. That’s where we suggest that there needs to be a review of how many ambulances are allocated to those communities.”

He said that a proper assessment of the area needs to be done.

“Is this an isolated situation, or are we seeing an increase in these types of situations where we don’t have resources? And that’s the responsibility, I believe, of the organization, the community and the government to say okay are we meeting our needs to provide our service.”

Clifford added that although he doesn’t have an indication that this is a widespread problem in Kimberley and the surrounding area, he realizes that both Kimberley and Cranbrook are growing communities, so there is a need to look at what resources are available.

“Maybe Kimberley’s not the place but maybe Cranbrook needs additional resources to support it’s close-proximity communities,” he said.

On April 20, the government announced an increase in short-term resource capacity as a response to COVID-19; 55 ambulances and five air resources, to develop a process for short-term surge planning.

Furthermore, Clifford said that a temporary advanced care paramedic was also placed in Cranbrook to respond in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“So they have recently put a temporary resource into Cranbrook which is an advanced care unit which we’ve never seen there,” Clifford said. “So that is a response. But long term, the East Kootenays and areas like that, the combination urban and rural, are areas that we’re looking at, how those 55 resources that the government announced will fit into areas like that.

“So there are some things in the works that are being evaluated, how we can better serve.”

One of the things in the works is a new service delivery model that is rolling out province wide over the next year.

“It’s not going to solve all the problems but it will enhance some of the support more in rural and remote areas, less affecting you but some of the smaller communities around there, as you get over farther to the Sparwoods and Elkfords and that sort of stuff,” Clifford said.

“So there are a lot of things in the works right now. Doesn’t immediately help somebody that had to wait that long, and that’s really what this is about.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) has their convention, but it will be a different format than usual as it will be held virtually.

“We usually have an opportunity to meet counsellors and politicians from the local municipalities at the UBCM and talk to us about their issues and concerns,” Clifford said. “But this year it’s going to be virtual so we might have to do a little modified reach out.”

Clifford said one of the campaigns at the UBCM convention this year is educating municipalities about what their service is in their communities, and what they need to do if they feel they have questions or feel they need to enhance service levels, as it is a provincial government mandate responsible for ambulance service.

“They have a duty to lobby and make sure that they advocate for their communities and we want to work with them on those types of things so that we hear from the community and what they need and can work with them,” Clifford said. “If your community isn’t getting enough, we want to support you and lobby for that.”

The Bulletin reached out to the BC Ambulance Service for comment, but at press time had not heard back.