British Columbia

No snow day for first responders facing heavy workload from storm

A snow day may mean a day off with tobogganing and hot chocolate for some, but first responders don't have that luxury — they have to make it into work to deal with extra work.

Calls for car crashes and falls go way up when the weather brings blizzards and ice

A paramedic specialist drives through an icy intersection in downtown Vancouver. (David Horemans/CBC)

Metro Vancouver doesn't fare especially well when it's hit with good, honest winter weather. And when heavy snow falls, people are advised to stay home and out of harm's way.

First responders don't have that luxury. For firefighters, paramedics and police, a snow day doesn't mean a day off with tobogganing and hot chocolate by a cozy fire — it means more calls and more difficulty responding to them.

"It's always challenging when we get a snow day, just due to the increase in call volume," said Neil Lilley, senior provincial executive director with B.C. Emergency Health Services, which oversees ambulances.

According to Lilley, EMS gets more than 1,100 calls across the province on a normal day, with about three quarters of those coming from the Lower Mainland. But on snow days, calls for vehicle collisions go up, and the number of slips and falls doubles.

Ambulance paramedics across the province know how to handle winter weather, he said, and paramedics have tire chains with them. But they still need to drive for the conditions which means slowing down en route to calls.

Prioritizing calls

He said people should expect slower response times and avoid calling 911 with minor medical problems. He suggest dialling 811 to speak with a nurse.

"We try to get to our patients as quick as possible and focus especially on the high acuity calls — you know, people with life-threatening conditions — and make sure that we're able to respond to those as quick as possible," he said.

A Vancouver firefighter hauls a hose during a fire on an icy street on Monday night. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

For firefighters, another icy hazard can be created when they spray water on a fire scene in sub-zero conditions.

Kane Morishita, acting assistant chief with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, was part of the response to a fire in the Strathcona neighbourhood on Monday night. He told CBC News that icy side roads posed a challenge after the fire in an uninhabited house had been extinguished. Luckily, the fire trucks were all outfitted with chains.

Chaining up tires

"We're having a weather issue with the cold, so the roads were flooded and it created a problem for fire crews with the ice conditions,"

Morishita said city crews were called in to cover the flooded roads with sand.

An ambulance drives along a snowy street in Vancouver, Jan. 15, 2020. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Sgt. Aaron Roed with the Vancouver Police Department said officers are making it into work despite the weather and the force isn't experiencing any staff shortage.

He said many officers drive four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs. Roed credited city crews with hustling to clear and salt the roads quickly to make it easier for police to respond to calls.

Roed said call response times didn't appear to be slower than normal on Wednesday, despite the weather and the fact that officers were forced to drive more slowly to suit the conditions.

He said that may be because lots of commuters left their cars at home leaving less traffic for police to battle when answering a call.

With files from Gian-Paolo Mendoza.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker


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