enhanced emergency ambulance services

The need for a better ambulance service

CKTZ News, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Green party MLA Adam Olsen has been listening to calls for a better ambulance service since he was first elected 2017. The need became even more apparent after 808 people died during the last five days of June. 75% of them are believed to have perished because of the heat wave that stuck the province. A large number were allegedly waiting for ambulances that arrived too late.

Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands – photo couretsy Adam Olsen

Problems with ‘enhanced emergency services’

BC Emergency Health Services was already moving towards an enhanced emergency services program, with more than 170 regular positions across the province, when this occurred.

“The backbone of any ambulance service is people. I know that our emergency service staff are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated whether it is helping people with COVID, the toxic drug supply crisis or the heat wave,” said Adrian Dix, the Minister of Health.

For the past few months, some rural Strathcona Regional District residents have been hearing that this change will result in cuts to their ambulance services. Moving back to a scheduled on call model that pays paramedics $2 an hour until they are called out. This does not amount to a living wage for a paramedic that might get called out a few dozen times a year. The mayor of Zeballos wrote the Ministry that this means her community may now be reduced to having a full crew of paramedics four days a month. At the May 26th Strathcona Regional District Board meeting, the Mayors of Tahsis, Sayward and the Regional Director for Cortes Island all spoke about reduced services in their areas, as paramedics find other jobs to support their families.

What this means in Olsen’s riding

Four of the new regular positions will be in Central Saanich, in Olsen’s riding, but at night this area will be served by the ‘fox trot shift’ ($2 hr while on call). 

“To think someone is on call and getting remunerated $2 an hour. We wouldn’t expect any employer to do that, but somehow BC Ambulance Service is able to get away with it,” said Olsen. 

The first responders in his riding are complaining that this also means that more pressure to provide medical assistance will be put on the volunteer fire department, who are usually the first to arrive on the scene.

“We have a situation where … you have the least experienced people working in the most remote communities,” said Olsen. “From a paramedics perspective, it would be best to have the most experienced people working in communities that don’t have a VGH (Vancouver General Hospital), or St Paul’s, or the Royal Jubilee Hospital just around the corner.”

He pointed out that his Gulf Island constituents sometimes wait for hours before they are airlifted off, and if there is a storm it can take all night. So the least experienced paramedics, with just a modest amount of education, are forced to treat people with a complex health care issues. 

Change to the service is needed

Olsen said that advocates have been informing him of the need for changes to the ambulance service ever since he was elected, in 2017.

“It wasn’t until people in urban British Columbia started to experience similar response times as what rural British Columbians experience, and we saw it at the volume we did, that the impetus was there for the government to act,” he said. 

As regards the changes to BCEHS’ operational model, Olsen suggested that the impacts should be assessed by each community. 

“What’s being said and what is rolling out are not always seemingly connected,” he said. “I think it is very important for us, as we experience heat dome, wildfires, flooding and we see the veracity of these events increasing and we see our friends, families and relatives around the world struggling with climate change related events. We have a government with the resources to be proactive, rather than reactive … It is not good enough to have a government bounce from one crisis to the next in response mode. British Columbians deserve a government that is thinking ahead, that is planning ahead.”

CKTZ News also reached out to North Island MLA Michele Babchuk, who did not wish to comment.

Links of Interest:

Top photo credit: Emergency patient flown down to the Vancouver General Hospital – photo by James Heilman via Wikipedia (CC BY SA, 4.0 License)

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