When you call 911, medical emergencies are transferred to a B.C. Ambulance dispatch centre — but you might have to wait a while for someone to answer your call, and even longer for a paramedic to arrive.
“We had 14 calls in queue in the middle of the afternoon that had been holding for over four minutes,” a dispatcher told CHEK News on the condition that we protect her identity. “That four minutes, imagine if somebody isn’t breathing.”
That was a recent Tuesday, and dispatchers say long weekends are usually even worse.
“We’re sitting there and there’s red lights flashing on the screen that tells you that you’re not answering these calls in time, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” the dispatcher says. “It’s completely unsustainable and the burnout is so high because when you become a first responder, you do it to help people and we’re kind of faced with a brick wall every day we go to work.”
A serious shortage of ambulance dispatchers means life-and-death calls are waiting on hold.
“That does occur, there’s no doubt about it,” admits Lance Stephenson, the Vancouver Island director for B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS). “Much like ambulance calls build up on the streets.”
B.C. Ambulance is also dealing with a chronic shortage of paramedics, which means call-takers are having to stay on longer to try and save lives over the phone.
“All of us, at this point, have done CPR on people up to 45 minutes and some of us for hours, waiting for an ambulance to show up,” the dispatcher says.
The paramedic’s union says it’s taking a huge toll and leading to record levels of burnout.
“We’ve seen a lot of money put into the ambulance service by the government but need to see changes in how it’s run,” says Troy Clifford, provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C. CUPE Local 873.
With the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic putting more pressure on the system, the B.C. government is funding 55 new ground ambulance units and five new air ambulances.
Over the last few years, 300 new full-time positions have been created but B.C. Ambulance says it can’t hire fast enough.
“We’re hiring between eight and 12 a week now, but that’s not enough,” Stephenson says. “We need to ramp that up. We could easily look at 24 to 50 people a week if we could get that many applications coming in.”
Until recently, most paramedic positions were part-time — which made it hard to recruit.
Low pay is another issue for recruitment. The rural on-call rate for paramedics is just $2 an hour when they’re at home and $15 per hour on-call at the station.
The starting wage in many rural areas is only $19.43 per hour and it’s $25.98 in urban areas.
By comparison, that’s lower than the $26.59 union rate for a movie extra in B.C.
It’s also far less than other first responders in the province.
The starting wage for a police officer at the Victoria Police Department is $35.12/hr and it’s $34.96/hr for firefighters at the Victoria Fire Department.
“They do an amazing job and often, we’re kind of left in shadows of fire and police all the time,” Stephenson says.
At the current recruiting levels, B.C. Ambulance says it may take years to be properly staffed and until it is, paramedics fear more lives will be at risk.
This is the final part of a two-part series. For part one, read Paramedic Crisis: Ambulances in B.C. are sitting empty due to a serious paramedic shortage