British Columbia

B.C. paramedics sound alarm over longer wait times due to staff shortages, burnout

Over the weekend, it took up to an hour to answer some emergency calls

Posted: February 22, 2021
Last Updated: February 24, 2021

The Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C. say the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the ongoing overdose crisis in the province, has exposed weaknesses in the system and pushed paramedics to the brink. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C. organization is sounding the alarm, saying response times for emergency assistance are becoming longer and could affect patient care due to the dual health crises, staff shortages and paramedic burnout.

Troy Clifford, the president of the organization, said there were 30 unstaffed ambulances across the Lower Mainland on Friday night due to staffing shortages. The area normally has about 120 ambulances ready to be dispatched.

"Unfortunately, it's not just isolated to this weekend. It's been escalating for some time now. We started seeing these numbers through the fall and recently it's been really escalating," he said, adding that unstaffed ambulances mean that each ambulance must travel further to reach the scene of an emergency.

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"We were advised that there were emergency calls that waited for up to an hour, and several hours for non-emergency calls. Lord help us if anyone were to lose a life because of a delayed paramedic."

Clifford said there have long been staffing issues, especially in the Lower Mainland. But he said the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the ongoing overdose crisis in the province, has exposed the weaknesses in the system and pushed paramedics to the brink.

He said staff are currently working at full capacity, with fewer staff working overtime shifts because of the extreme fatigue.

"It's an ever revolving door because if you're so burned out after a 12-hour shift and you end up not getting off on time and it ends up being a 14-hour shift, by the time you get home you're physically and mentally exhausted," he said.

"We're wearing full PPE on every call which is really exhausting to do that due diligence which we have to do for everybody's sakes."

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Clifford said there are around 4,500 paramedics and dispatchers across the province. He said for calls that involve CPR or cardiac arrest, it's critical that paramedics are able to respond immediately.

"We're trying to get the word out, sound the alarm, not to put out the fears that we wouldn't be able to respond. The system's not broken but it definitely needs some attention," he said.

Clifford said he's lobbying B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) and the provincial health officer to look for long-term and short-term solutions.

Call volume higher than normal last Friday: BCEHS

In a statement, BCEHS said paramedic staffing levels in the Lower Mainland have been stable overall, with no major recruitment issues.

It said longer waits on Friday for less critical 911 calls happened because of demand due to the pandemic and the overdose crisis, as well as staff having booked the night off for illness or other issues.

Call volume on Friday night was also higher than normal, it added, with more than 1,700 calls for help over 24 hours.

"We can absolutely assure the public we are getting to critical patients and prioritizing our responses based on the medical priority dispatch system used around the world. This means patients with life-threatening symptoms including cardiac arrest, chest pain, breathing difficulties, severe bleeding or unconsciousness, receive an urgent lights and sirens ambulance response," wrote BCEHS chief operating officer Darlene MacKinnon.

The company said the median response time for most critical "purple" and "red" calls in the Vancouver was around 10 minutes and nine minutes, respectively. The time for less critical "yellow" calls was 45 minutes.