British Columbia

New 911 dispatch system is cutting firefighters out of medical calls, Coquitlam mayor says

Richard Stewart says an elderly woman's hour-long wait for paramedics is a symptom of problems with a new ambulance dispatch system — but the B.C. Emergency Health Services says it was a rare hiccup for protocol that normally runs smoothly.

Richard Stewart says fire crew arrived minutes after call to attend to elderly woman; paramedics took an hour

A stock photo of a BC ambulance, with the words Emergency Paramedic and Ambulance on the side.
B.C. Emergency Health Services says the new ambulance dispatch system has a 98% track record of accurately prioritizing calls. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The mayor of Coquitlam says an elderly woman's hour-long wait for an ambulance is a symptom of problems with a new 911 dispatch system.

But the head of B.C. Emergency Health Services said the incident was a rare hiccup for protocol that normally runs smoothly.

Mayor Richard Stewart said the incident, which he recounted on Facebook, unfolded at an event at Town Centre Park in mid-July when the woman fainted and fell. First aid attendants attended to her and called 911.

Stewart said he came across the scene about 30 minutes later and called the fire department, which has a hall nearby.

A crew from the fire hall arrived within minutes, he said, while the ambulance did not arrive for about another half-hour.

"Fire departments don't get called for that mid-level of acuity anymore," Stewart said. 

"B.C. EHS has made the unilateral decision that they're the only ones that go to these calls, that they don't inform fire departments of this level of call."

Stewart says this is not the first time a situation like this has happened.

He's concerned firefighters are not being dispatched to emergencies as often as they should be since a new dispatch protocol was implemented in May.

Dispatcher given wrong info: EHS

B.C. EHS executive vice-president Linda Lupini said although there has been no complaint about this case, it is being reviewed.

She explained that while B.C. does have a new ambulance dispatch system, it does not exclude firefighters from medical emergencies.

"If we can't get to even a medium-to-low acuity call within a certain period of time, it is always our policy in our new response model to send the fire department," Lupini said.

The system makes decisions about dispatch priority based on the results of questions the dispatcher asks the caller, she said.

Lupini said the preliminary findings about the Coquitlam incident suggest that the dispatcher was given wrong information by the caller which led to it being coded as a "low acuity" call.

Once updated information was received from a second 911 call, it was given a higher priority.

"As soon as that subsequent call came in and we had more detail about the patient's condition, we automatically sent the fire department to that call," she said.

'Mistake after mistake'

Lupini said the new dispatch system correctly assesses the severity of a medical situation 98 per cent of the time.

It is used in multiple jurisdictions around the world, she said, and since it was launched in B.C. on May 30, it hasn't led to any patient or family complaint about wait times.

"I would consider this rare," she added.

Stewart insists triaging calls based on information from 911 callers adds risk.

"You're relying on whatever training the person who's calling has and you're perhaps putting in place systemic mistake after mistake," he said, adding firefighters should attend as well.

"We're going to get poorer information than if we had them on the scene."

Lupini argues it's best to keep firefighters off the scene if they aren't needed or if they won't be there first. That way, she explained, they can be available for higher priority calls.

She added that as the number of medical emergency calls in B.C. has increased — especially the number of low-priority calls — dispatching firefighters to every single call might not be sustainable or practical.

Lupini said for privacy reasons, she could not provide an update on the condition of the patient in the Coquitlam incident.

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Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.