March 1, 2022

Following shocking heat wave death toll, long wait times for 911, here’s what’s changing about emergency care in B.C.

In an update addressing recent issues involving access to emergency health care in B.C., the health minister outlined some changes the province is making that aren’t popular with everyone.

Minister Adrian Dix confirmed in more detail Friday what was already reported by CTV News in November

The province is expanding the scope of care paramedics and others are able to provide.

“When you call 911 and it’s an emergency, you need to know that first responders can help you with every health intervention they are trained, licensed and able to deliver,” the minister said at a news conference.

He said discussions have been going on for years, and this is the culmination of those talks.

“Once the changes are implemented, paramedics and first responders will increasingly be able to help patients on scene. For paramedics, this means the ability to provide more life-saving interventions, which at various licensing levels can include needle decompression for major chest trauma to support breathing, using portable ultrasound to better assess patients and inform care decisions, enhancing airway management skills and providing life-supporting or sustaining medications during transport,” Dix listed.

Firefighters and other first responders will also see a broader scope of care, he said, including diagnostic testing, dealing with life-threatening allergic reactions and “administering care supporting the preparation and packaging of patients for transport by paramedics.”

Additionally, Dix pledged further mental health supports members of B.C. Emergency Health Services, including increased clinical resources.

Some of changes were already outlined by the recently-appointed BCEHS chief ambulance officer during an interview on Nov. 12

The changes follow a shocking death toll during an unusually hot summer in B.C., and complaints from people stuck waiting on hold or unable to get through to 911.

While some, including members of the B.C. Professional Firefighters Association (BCPFA), say the change is something they’ve been advocating for for years, others are less on board with the plan.

“They don’t want our job, we don’t want their job,” the president of Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of B.C. said last month.

The union’s Troy Clifford called it a “duplication of services that goes on to municipal taxpayers.”

Instead, the union is pushing for mass hiring, with Clifford saying up to 40 per cent of ambulances are not staffed because there aren’t enough paramedics. 

According to Minister Dix, the province has hired 85 more full-time paramedics and 65 full-time dispatchers as of Nov. 30.

Recruitment is underway for 30 more dispatchers, and nine of the 22 new ambulances promised are now operational.

Prior to Friday’s announcement, CTV News Vancouver had asked union and government leaders whether a hybrid model or greater co-operation between paramedics and firefighters may be a solution to ongoing issues demand for ambulance service in the province.

Firefighters have seen a reduction in calls as smoke detectors dramatically reduced the number of residential and commercial fires.

Speaking in favour of an expanded scope in November, BCPFA president Gord Ditchburn said the push wasn’t to “take work away” from B.C.’s paramedics.

“The respect level we have for paramedics on the street is incredible,” he said in an interview.

“Firefighters have the ability to deliver naloxone and it makes a difference in a patient’s life, so why can’t we expand some of that to supporting pre-hospital care and our paramedics?”

Another controversial solution to 911 wait times in B.C. was announced earlier this week as well.

E-Comm, the province’s provider of 911 services, has at several times this year warned the public of lengthy delays. People who’ve called 911 have told CTV News about being put on hold, having to wait as long as 30 minutes and not being able to get through at all.

E-Comm has said that a major factor in the delays is tied to B.C. Emergency Health Services.

In B.C., calls made to 911 go to E-Comm first, and its operators then pass the call on, depending on whether the caller needs police, firefighters or an ambulance.

One of the issues, E-Comm representatives have said, is the time it takes for someone at BCEHS to pick up – an issue it blames on a shortage of staffing.

So earlier this week, E-Comm announced a solution that “stunned” employees, their union said. As of this week, operators at E-Comm may not wait with the caller for BCEHS to pick up. Instead, once the call is directed to the appropriate agency, the operator will tell the caller that they’re in a queue, and that they need to go back to answering calls to 911. They will then disconnect from the call.

According to E-Comm, it has worked with BCEHS to come to this solution, and both agencies have put measures in place to separate the most urgent calls from situations that are not life-or-death.

It was not a popular decision with all. The union representing 911 operators said it went against “every single fibre of our being.”

In a news release earlier this week, the union said it could mean that someone calling for an ambulance will “die alone, listening to a recording” while waiting for BCEHS to answer the call. The union’s statement was later amended to remove that quote from president Donald Grant. 

As with the paramedics’ union, Grant says a staffing crisis is the issue, and that more jobs are needed to meet operational demands. 

Another factor in long waits for 911 service and ambulances is a shortage of family doctors in B.C. Read more on that issue

With files from CTV News Vancouver’s Penny Daflos and Bhinder Sajan

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