CBC Investigates

Urgences-Santé's delayed response points to larger problems, union says

The union that represents paramedics says a computer glitch that caused a Montreal man's call for help be to lost is a sign of larger problems in the way the ambulance service is run.

Montreal man with chest pains waited over an hour for an ambulance, had to call 911 twice

Yvon Bonesso, spokesperson for the paramedics union, is concerned with the way Urgences-Santé has handled the mix-up. (CBC)

The union that represents paramedics says a computer glitch that caused a Montreal man's call for help be to lost is a sign of larger problems in the way the ambulance service is run.

​The fact it took CBC Montreal Investigates to point out the error — even scarier.

"When something is flagged, don't wait weeks to investigate it. Investigate it right away and fix it," said Yvon Bonesso, a spokesperson for the union.

More than an hour wait

Walid Zawahiri's first call to 911 on Oct. 7. Urgence-Santé's operator says paramedics are on their way. 0:51
Walid Zawahiri, 53, called 911 last Oct. 7, when he began to have chest pains.

An operator assured him paramedics were on the way, but after an hour, no one, neither paramedics nor first responders had arrived.

He then phoned 911 again an hour later and only then was an ambulance dispatched to his address.

Urgences-Santé said the computer system it relies on to treat calls was being updated at the time. 

A previous caller had hung up just prior to Zawahiri's call coming in. Somehow, Urgences-Santé says that person's address remained stuck on the operator's screen and was attached to Zawahiri's file.

It ended up sending two ambulances to the first caller's address. The second ambulance, which should have gone to Zawahiri, was cancelled because Urgences-Santé thought it had doubled up on the call.

Urgences-Santé said Zawahiri could have called back sooner. 

Urgences-Santé promises more training

In addition to an internal investigation into what caused the glitch, Urgences-Santé said it will train staff — both at the call centre as well as paramedics to raise a red flag if a problem or error is detected.

The chief of operations for Urgences-Santé's call centre, Vincent Brouillard, said a technical glitch wasn't discovered until CBC provided the precise time and date of a call that the ambulance service had previously said it never received. (CBC)
But Bonesso said there are other problems. He said it's not up to paramedics to figure out if they are at the right place or treating the right person.

"When paramedics come on the scene, that's not the first question they ask. They just assume they are the one who called because they answered the door and say yes, come in," said Bonesso.

"Then the name-asking comes really late in the call. It depends if the person is really not feeling well, the name is not that important."

Delays in investigation

CBC began to ask questions about Zawahiri's file as far back as October.

Bonesso said that should have sparked an investigation right away.

"You know, putting the blame on the patient or the paramedic who doesn't verify the name on every call, OK, we can do that, but we need to have a system inside to make sure we don't drop the call," said Bonesso.

In other cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, as a safety measure, both the 911 call centre and the ambulance service ask for the caller's address.

In Montreal, the address is only taken by the 911 call centre and the information is transferred electronically to Urgences-Santé. No second check is made by Urgences-Santé.

Government satisfied with response

A spokesperson for the health minister, which oversees Urgences-Santé, said that would take up valuable time.

She went on to say the government was satisfied with the measures Urgences-Santé has implemented to fix the problem.

The spokesperson said the public can rest aassured that Urgences-Santé was doing everything possible to ensure a high quality of service.

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About the Author

Leah Hendry

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates.

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