The Whaletown ferry dock

Cortes Island and rural coastal communities to receive more paramedics

CKTZ News, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Earlier this month, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) initiated a staffing model designed to ensure that small rural communities like Cortes Island have four scheduled on-call (SOC) paramedics.

“The SOC model means shifts can be fully scheduled without waiting for availability of on-call paramedics. SOC shifts are, in general, 8 hours at work, and 16 hours on-call for 3 day rotations,” Sarah Morris, BCEHS media relations, said in an email to CKTZ News. “These additional positions were posted the week of Aug 6, and BCEHS is following the recruitment process as per the collective agreement with the paramedics’ union.”

Local on-call staff will be recruited as required to provide relief coverage for leaves and vacations.

There were problems with the previous on-call rural paramedic service model.

Tory Clifford, president of the paramedics union, told the CBC in June that 30 per cent of the province’s ambulances were not used during the  COVID-19 pandemic and opioid crisis because of inadequate staffing. He add that during the heatwave at the end of June, “paramedics were slammed with a record number of calls.”

BCEHS’ initial response to the issue was to phase out the four hour minimum wage guarantee for on call paramedics and introduce 170 new SOC positions across the province.

As the Cortes Community Health Association pointed out in a recent public letter, Cortes Island was to have received one of these new SOC positions. The rest of island’s paramedics had to choose between seeking other employment or “serving their community for $24 a shift and hoping they get a call out.” In this case, they would receive full wages.

The Mayor of Zeballos Julie Colborne wrote Health Minister Adrian Dix in the spring (May 10) that as a result of this transition, her community might only have full ambulance service for about four days a month. She described the new service model as “a catastrophic collapse of service.”

At the Strathcona Regional District’s May 26 board meeting, the mayors of Sayward, Tahsis and Zeballos, as well as Cortes Island’s regional director, spoke about the loss of paramedics in their communities.

BCEHS responded to these rural challenges by increasing the number of SOC positions in some communities to four, from the current one.

In her email, Morris wrote that the Vancouver Island area communities of Alert Bay, Cortes Island, Port Alice, Sayward, Sointula, Tahsis and Zeballos are among those communities.

During the transition period, the four hour minimum wage guarantee for on-call paramedics has been extended to Oct. 31.

Green Party MLA Adam Olsen informed CKTZ News that there may be further changes as BCEHS tweaks their service model over the next few months.

Top photo credit: The dock at Whaletown terminal, on Cortes Island. Though they are given priority on the two ferries, it is a 3-4 hour trip to the Campbell River Hospital – Photo by Roy L Hales

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