Up to 50 per cent of ambulances unstaffed in B.C.’s Lower Mainland this week

During a week of wild winter weather and rising COVID-19 cases, up to half of the ambulances that should’ve been responding to 911 calls have instead been parked unstaffed due to ongoing personnel shortages and the impacts of the Omicron variant, according to the union representing B.C.’s paramedics.

While the province’s ambulance service has seen between 30 and 40 per cent of positions unfilled since the summer, the combination of typical holiday 911 volume, growing community spread of the Omicron variant, and some COVID-19 infections among paramedics themselves has culminated in up to 50 ambulances unused in the Lower Mainland alone.

“At peak times, we’re seeing up to 50 per cent at some times where we’re out of service just because we don’t have the staff,” said Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of B.C.

“(Paramedics are) feeling guilty and don’t want to book off when they’re needing help or are sick because they know they’re short-staffed and their colleagues are going to be up there needing help and that’s ultimately affecting patients.”

In recent weeks, other paramedic services unions across the country have issued public alerts – referred to as “code black” in Ontario and “red alert” in Alberta – to indicate there are few or no ambulances available due to staffing issues.

CTV News Vancouver has reached out to BC Emergency Health Services for its tally of unused ambulances, but the agency has not yet responded.

B.C. AMBULANCE SERVICE FACES UNIQUE CHALLENGES

In the fall, a CTV News analysis of the long wait times for ambulance and 911 service found that chronic underfunding of BC Emergency Health Services was only part of the problem: the chronic family doctor shortage that’s seen emergency medical attention substitute primary care, ongoing staffing issues at the 911 level, plus workplace injuries and poor pay compared to other first responders were all contributing to the demand on the ambulance service.

Since then, two of the senior EHS executives in charge during B.C.’s disastrous heat dome response quietly took new roles.

In her first interview as Chief Ambulance Officer, Leanne Heppell insisted that the ambulance service was undergoing the biggest transformation it had ever seen, promising that it was taking action and “doing a variety of different fronts to try and strengthen the service.”

“One of the main things we’re doing right now is recruiting, we’re hiring, we’re training,” she said at the time.

But Clifford points out the pay scale is not competitive with other first responders and health-care workers, with difficult and stressful working conditions that haven’t been addressed; frontline workers CTV News has spoken with expressed similar frustrations that little has changed despite announcements of more funding and new positions.

“I believe in the new governance model, I believe in the support from government, but it’s not coming quick enough,” said Clifford. “People say, ‘Why are you out there undermining the ambulance service?’ I’m not doing that at all. I think we need to have these honest conversations and any conversation we have that enhances and gets an ambulance to a patient or a 911 call answered in a more efficient, timely matter, that’s a good thing.” 

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