A dispute over a lack of ambulance workers has boiled over in a remote district in northwestern British Columbia, leaving hundreds of residents without the emergency service this long weekend.
Two paramedics in the District of Stewart quit their jobs as of July 30, including unit chief Cindy Ellwood who said she's fed up with disruptions that mean the nearest ambulance is hours away.
- Read more about emergency medical care in Northern B.C.
- Woman dies waiting fo ambulance in Northern B.C.
Ellwood said she's been complaining to her employer, the B.C. Ambulance Service, for some time that her small crew can't cover the hundreds of kilometres in their territory, seven days a week.
"We're having weekly shut downs where we don't have any ambulance whatsoever and I've asked for assistance," she said.
"I've asked them what we're going to do and the only answer I get back is we're not in the budget."
She said regional training officers have come in to try to fill the gap, but help has been inconsistent.
Three hour drives
Ellwood has been a paramedic in the community for 11 years and up until a few months ago, she loved her job. She said the service is asking Stewart paramedics to go further — sometimes a three-hour drive away — to help people.
"I didn't sign up to go out there and sit with somebody in a critical state while I'm waiting for an ambulance to either fly in if I'm lucky, or somebody to come in from either Kitwanga, Hazelton or Terrace which is ... three, four hours [away]."
Ellwood said before she and her co-worker quit, they had six people on staff. Now, there is one paramedic and three are ambulance drivers.
For the last year, Ellwood said she's driven an ambulance out to emergency calls by herself and then relied on a responding fire-rescue operator at the scene to drive her back in the ambulance while she tended to the patient.
She said work is picking up in the area and all those fire-rescue volunteers aren't available any longer. She said one of her drivers was working several jobs and such volunteers are difficult to find.
"The [drivers] who I have hired are people who are very concerned for their community and they want to help out because of that. But they all have jobs."
With those people at work Monday to Friday, Ellwood said she would often have to shut down during the week because she had no one to drive the ambulance.
"That's where I'm fed up, because they've pushed us aside and said 'you know what, we just don't have the budget to send somebody up for you."'
"I just can't sit here day after day thinking 'OK what if a call comes through and I can't go?"'
Ellwood said she's "heartbroken" about having to leave the service.
Recruiting in the community
Les Fisher, the chief operating officer at B.C. Ambulance Service, said the service has the same recruitment issues as volunteer firefighters in certain communities.
"We put a concerted effort within the community to identify people to step up and help out their neighbours. We get them through the recruitment process, we get them through the training process and resolve the issues in that community."
Fisher said a lot of the recruitment problems cycle with the resource communities and when times are good and people have other things to do, the service struggles.
B.C. Ambulance has been working with Stewart's mayor and the community on recruitment issues, he said.
"We are putting an emergency medical responder course on in Stewart this September, so that people don't have to leave their community for training. We'll provide it right there."
There are 65 communities in the same "remote category" as Stewart, many with more call volume that Stewart, he said.
Stewart has an average of two ambulance calls per week.