British Columbia

More paramedics and dispatchers will be hired in B.C., health minister announces

During a Wednesday news conference, Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C.'s ambulance service will be beefed up.

Changes come after several paramedics told the media the system failed during June's heat wave

A spokesperson for the union organization representing the more than 4,400 paramedics and emergency dispatchers in B.C. says current staff shortages mean in some cases crews are out of service and response times can be impacted. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

More paramedics, dispatchers, and new ambulances are some of the changes Health Minister Adrian Dix announced on Wednesday after several paramedics told reporters the system had failed during the deadly heat wave at the end of June.

Workers told CBC News that some dispatchers had more than 200 calls waiting for a response and lower-priority calls were left unattended for anywhere from four to 16 hours.

On Wednesday, Dix said the B.C. Emergency Health Services board of directors has been tasked to solely focus on ambulance services and look into what other changes can be made to improve the emergency system to better support workers and those who rely on the service.

He said calls increased during the record-breaking heat wave, but paramedics were already under pressure from the overdose crisis.

"The events in the last few weeks make it clear that there's more work to be done," he said. "Our emergency health service system must work better to people who call upon it and those who answer the call for help."

He appointed Jim Chu, former chief constable of the Vancouver Police Department, to chair the board which will directly report to Dix.

"Immediate action on operations, as well as stronger leadership and increased investment at B.C. Emergency Health Services, will deliver a more effective ambulance service for patients and families who depend on it. Better support for paramedics and dispatchers will help them do the vital work we count on every day."

A B.C. Ambulance paramedic cleans his ambulance in Lions Bay, B.C., in April 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Growing demand, challenges

Dix said the province is also funding 85 new full time paramedic positions, 20 full time dispatchers, and putting in place 22 new ambulances while also converting 22 rural ambulance stations to provide service 24/7.

He also announced plans for an additional 16 stations to be ready by October 2021.

There were 716 sudden and unexpected deaths recorded during the historic heat wave, which broke more than 100 temperature records across the province. The B.C. Coroners Service said the extreme heat is believed to have played a significant role in many of those deaths.

Paramedics and their union said the Ministry of Health and B.C. Emergency Health Services were ill-prepared.

In addition to Chu, Dix appointed Leanne Heppell to serve as the province's new interim chief ambulance officer. She has 20 years of experience in senior leadership at Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health and the B.C. Ambulance Service.

The province will also be addressing the concern that many staff are still on-call rather than full-time employees. Dix said greater support for employees will be given and more permanent full-time and part-time jobs will be offered to replace casual positions, especially in rural communities.

"When I became minister of health, about 36 per cent of ambulance paramedics were full or part-time permanent staff," he said.

"By the time our changes are made, the ones that are proposed to be made, it'll be over 50 per cent," Dix said.

He also directed B.C. Emergency Health Services to contract a team of mental health and wellness professionals to directly work with dispatchers and paramedics to address stress and fatigue.

As part of the province's overhaul of the ambulance service, Dix also appointed Telus CEO Darren Entwistle as special adviser to the board.

With files from Canadian Press

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