British Columbia pledges to improve ambulance system after heat wave overwhelms emergency services

Paramedics who worked during the heatwave described a service overwhelmed with hundreds of priority calls.

DON MACKINNON / AFP / Getty Images

British Columbia has appointed the former Vancouver police chief to oversee an overhaul of how ambulances, paramedics and 911 dispatchers respond to medical emergencies on Canada’s west coast.

The move, announced Wednesday afternoon, was sparked by an unprecedented heat wave last month that is linked to nearly four times as many sudden deaths that week than in previous years. Patients in and around Vancouver said they waited hours for frontline staff to show up to help.

Jim Chu retired as Vancouver Police Chief in 2015 after more than three decades in the police force and now works for real estate developer Aquilini Investment Group. He accepted the offer on Monday to chair the new board of directors of BC Emergency Health Services, which will report directly to the provincial agency that oversees all specialty health services, as well as to Health Minister Adrian Dix.

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Mr. Chu told a press conference on Wednesday that his first order of business will be to listen to the concerns of a paramedic exasperated by deficiencies in the ambulance system.

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He added that his mission in this role would be “to listen to and learn from people who have been on the ground for many more decades than I have”.

The current EHS leadership team remains in place, despite widespread criticism from paramedics and families of the deceased that they were too slow to step up their official response to the heat wave. However, the agency has created the new leadership position of Chief Ambulance Pole who will report directly to Mr. Chu and be responsible for improving the day-to-day operations of the BC Ambulance Service as well as the working conditions of more than 4,500 paramedics. , telephone operators and dispatchers across the province.

The Globe and Mail spoke to four paramedics who worked during the heatwave. All described a service overwhelmed by hundreds of priority calls. Often when they arrived at the scene, someone was already dead.

Paramedics said the changes had an emotional impact and were also physically exhausting: Paramedics wore their uniforms as well as a plastic gown and other personal protective equipment while entering residences as hot as 45 degrees Celsius to revive people. They said they were drenched in sweat and some of their colleagues got sick from the heat.

Usually, several ambulances answer priority calls. But because resources were so dispersed, only one vehicle answered each call. Hospitals were also overwhelmed and often could not accommodate the patients the paramedics were carrying.

Paramedics asked not to be named because they feared repercussions from their employer.

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Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC union, welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, saying he felt cautiously optimistic as the government appeared to have listened to criticism from him and his colleagues, noting that he will meet the new acting paramedic on Thursday.

As the unusually hot summer in British Columbia continues, a measure announced by the province that could quickly improve the service and working conditions of paramedics is the hiring of more mental health professionals, he said. -he declares. Mr Clifford, who has worked as a paramedic for more than 30 years, said up to a quarter of its members are now either seeking mental health treatment after a critical incident at work, are on sick leave work to seek treatment for physical injuries or are in the process of filing a workers compensation claim due to pressures in their workplace.

Making sure more mental health resources are available for paramedics would help them continue working without burnout or give them time to fully recover from any injuries, Mr Clifford said in an interview after the EHS announcement Wednesday.

Some paramedics have said that due to staffing, recruitment, retention, pay and working conditions issues, many paramedic positions are not filled and ambulances are understaffed, even though they are functioning. at full capacity even on a normal day. So when there is a power surge, such as a heat wave, there are not enough paramedics to meet the increased demand.

Mr Dix said his government had increased funding for the service during his four years in office, but acknowledged that more paramedics needed to be hired. British Columbia is also asking the relevant board of directors to consider whether firefighters should be allowed to do more to help respond to medical emergencies, with recommendations due by September 6.

To address the understaffing issue, Dix announced that the province is hiring 85 new full-time paramedics, 30 dispatchers and purchasing 30 new ambulances.

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“It is clear that our paramedics are working very hard,” he said of rescuers’ response to call volumes which have remained above normal since the start of Colombia’s reopening. -British in June, followed by the heat wave that has hit the province in the past. a few weeks.

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