We take it for granted that an ambulance will come rushing to help in a life-or-death emergency, but paramedics are sounding the alarm about a system they say is broken.
“The way this is being run, it’s dangerous for the public, it’s dangerous for those of us who are working,” a paramedic and ambulance dispatcher told CHEK News. “On any given day, we have calls holding for hours, hours, and we just can’t get there.”
Fearful speaking out could cost her her job, CHEK News has agreed to protect her identity.
“People are dying,” she says. “That’s the long and short of it — that people are dying and we’re just not sure who has to die for it to change.”
Every day in B.C., ambulances are sitting empty due to a serious shortage of paramedics, especially on the Lower Mainland.
“We’re seeing anywhere from 20 to 25 per cent on average, every shift, that are un-staffed,” says Troy Clifford, provincial president of CUPE Local 873, the ambulance paramedics and dispatcher’s union.
BC Ambulance says it’s typically around six to 10 per cent on Vancouver Island — during times when medical emergencies are on the rise.
“We’ve never lived through a pandemic before that is enhanced with an opioid crisis as well and our call volume steadily on the increase over many years,” explains Lance Stephenson, the Vancouver Island director for B.C. Emergency Health Services.
Since 2015, ambulance calls are up 18 per cent and despite a small dip last year, crews are busier — and more stressed — than ever.
“Our overall call volume has not gone up over the last year, but the calls and incidents we’re responding to are becoming more complex and are taking longer to get through,” Stephenson says.
COVID precautions, difficulty communicating with PPE, and heightened cleaning between patients all takes longer.
Combine that with the paramedic shortage, and it’s even more pressure for those on the front lines of this pandemic.
“Every time you clear the hospital, there’s another call holding,” says veteran Victoria-based paramedic Warren Leeder. “It’s not unusual for someone to work 10 or 12 hours and then realize, ‘wow, I haven’t eaten today.'”
A paramedic for almost 20 years, Leeder is also the union’s mental health and wellness coordinator and he says the dire situation is taking an enormous toll.
“I’m so proud,” says Leeder, choking up. “Sometimes I get emotional because I see how much time and effort that our members put in. They’re literally, even unknowingly, putting their vitality on the line.”
It’s also putting lives on the line, with both urban and rural areas left without an ambulance, which means, even the most critical calls sometimes have to wait.
“There are times, admittedly, where it does take us 25, 45 minutes, sometimes over an hour to get to a call even with lights and sirens,” Stephenson says.
It’s not just a shortage of paramedics on the street. In part two of this special series, CHEK News examines the issues in B.C. Ambulance dispatch and find out what’s being done to solve these problems.