British Columbia

Fire chiefs worry new ambulance dispatch system leaves small-town patients waiting

Firefighters are raising concerns about B.C.'s new ambulance dispatch system, saying it often cuts their departments out of the equation in small communities that see less ambulance service.

'There is so much more than just whether that patient is going to live or die,' says Metchosin chief

Fire crews treat a patient after responding to a call in Burnaby, B.C., in March 2018. Dispatch protocol for firefighters and medical emergencies has changed since then, leaving some fire chiefs worried that patients will be left waiting longer for help. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Firefighters are raising concerns about B.C.'s new ambulance dispatch system, saying it often cuts their departments out of emergency calls in small communities that see less ambulance service.

Under the new system, launched in the spring, firefighters may not be notified of a medical emergency unless it's considered a high priority, or unless an ambulance is going to be delayed in responding.

That silence doesn't sit well with Stephanie Dunlop, the fire chief in Metchosin, a rural community on southern Vancouver Island.

"We are just closer most of the time," she said. "In some cases they may call us, depending on the parameters of that call; in other cases they may not."

'So much more'

Local fire crews also play a key role beyond helping patients, such as directing ambulances to driveways that are hard to find or clearing snow so paramedics have access, Dunlop said.

"There is so much more than just whether that patient is going to live or die," she said.

Paul Hurst, the fire chief in View Royal near Victoria, says fire officials recently met with staff from B.C. Emergency Health Services to raise concerns and learn more about the rationale behind the changes.

"Our concern is that we would have residents that are waiting a disproportionate amount of time because that's a non-emergency call," said the chief, whose hall's motto is "no call too small."

The meeting helped ease some fears, but Hurst says fire chiefs plan to meet with the dispatch service again in coming months to evaluate the new system.

New dispatch

B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) changed the way ambulances and firefighters are sent to emergencies to "free up" resources for urgent calls by, in theory, avoiding sending crews somewhere they're not needed.

The system makes decisions about dispatch priority based on questions dispatchers ask callers.

The issue, Hurst said, arises in remote communities that wait longer for an ambulance to arrive from out of town. In those cases, firefighters are often first on scene.

"Some would argue having those resources getting there three or four minutes ahead of an ambulance is beneficial to the patients," Hurst said.

The new system was criticized in August, after an elderly woman waited an hour for an ambulance after falling at an event in Coquitlam.

Mayor Richard Stewart came across the scene after around half an hour and called firefighters, who arrived within minutes. They hadn't been notified of the original 911 call.

At the time, a BCEHS spokesperson said preliminary findings suggested the caller had given the dispatcher inaccurate information about the situation, which led to it being coded as a "low acuity" call.

System is 'benefiting patients': BCEHS

Despite the concerns, BCEHS said the new system hasn't extended wait times for patients and has improved response times to critical calls in most communities.

"The new clinical response model is benefiting patients across British Columbia," senior provincial executive Neil Lilley said.

Fire departments are still called to burns, motor vehicle crashes and hazmat situations.

They will also be notified of any serious calls where ambulances are likely to take more than 10 minutes to arrive at the scene.

With files from Megan Thomas, All Points West

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