British Columbia

Investigation launched after infant in B.C. Interior reportedly dies while waiting for an ambulance

British Columbia's emergency health service says the death in Barriere, B.C. is a "heartbreaking loss.''

It is not known whether response time contributed to death, but mayor says emergency staffing is a concern

An ambulance with the word 'AMBULANCE' written in reverse font.
The mayor of Barrierre, B.C., says a lack of ambulance services in rural communities has residents on edge. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Situation Critical is a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

A stylized phrase reading 'SITUATION CRITICAL', made to read like a red heartbeat monitor.

British Columbia's emergency health service says it is reviewing the circumstances of the reported death of an infant last week while waiting for an ambulance in a small community in the southern Interior, calling it a "heartbreaking loss.''

A statement from B.C. Emergency Health Services says it received a call to respond to a patient in the community of Barrierre, about 80 kilometres north of Kamloops, on Aug. 25.

The agency has not confirmed the patient's age or cause of death but says it has opened a review into the call for service and will work with the patient care quality office to reach out to the family and address any questions or concerns.

Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., had spoken to media over the weekend about the death of an infant in Barriere.

Clifford said his organization would continue to address a "provincewide staffing crisis,'' including in communities like Barriere that he said are "often left without appropriate ambulance coverage for long periods of time due to staffing issues.'' 

However, he could not confirm whether ambulance response time was a contributing factor in the infant's death, instead directing queries to Emergency Health Services.

The agency said the closest available ambulance was immediately dispatched, and local firefighters were also requested to assist with the call.

Mayor seeks change

Barriere Mayor Ward Stamer, meanwhile, is calling for flexibility around which first responders are allowed to take patients to hospital following reports of the death.

Stamer said his community has a first responders' society with a vehicle that can respond when the B.C. Ambulance Service can't, but they're not allowed to transport patients to hospital.

He said that has to change as the community grapples with gaps in service that mean first responders might not be available when someone calls 911. 

In an interview on Monday, the mayor said he hadn't been told how long it took paramedics to respond to the call about the infant last Thursday.

He could not provide details of what happened, saying only that there had been a "critical care incident'' involving a young child who died.

Stamer said all he knows is based on what Troy Clifford had told media — that there had been a fully staffed vehicle in Barriere, but it was diverted south to help in Kamloops.

There's normally one ambulance in Barriere and two in Clearwater, about 60 kilometres north, but they're shared throughout the region, Stamer said.

"From what I understand, there was only one car for all of Kamloops on that Thursday night, and that is why ours was taken from us,'' he said.

The service does not tell the local government when the ambulance that's based in Barriere is being diverted elsewhere until afterwards, he said.

Clifford said his organization would continue to address a "provincewide staffing crisis,'' adding it's leaving communities like Barriere without appropriate ambulance coverage for long periods of time.

Rural ambulance concerns

Stamer described a situation about two weeks ago when a woman in Barriere had a stroke when the ambulance service wasn't immediately available. The woman's daughter was pulled over by the RCMP for speeding while taking her mother to hospital in Kamloops, about 66 kilometres away, and the Mounties ended up escorting them, he said.

"We've all got stories like that,'' he said of rural communities across B.C.

Stamer said there's a "higher level of anxiety'' in Barriere as residents don't know what level of ambulance service might be available on a given day.

"Should we be getting our residents prepared, like an evacuation alert, so you've got a full tank of gas so you can throw somebody in the pickup and take them to town? That's kind of where we're at sometimes,'' he said.

Stamer said he and other mayors from communities in B.C.'s Interior are talking about coming together at the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting next month to try to catch the ears of provincial authorities.

"We're not trying to point fingers here, and we're not blaming anybody,'' he said.

"We just want to be able to sit down and see if we can have a constructive meeting, to see if we can come up to some short-term solutions to the problems that we're all facing in these communities.''

With files from CBC Kamloops