Paramedics call for action from employers, province over long wait times during heat wave
Spike in sudden deaths has union sounding alarm for more ambulance, dispatch staff
Paramedics in B.C.'s Lower Mainland were stretched to their limits during the provincewide heat wave last weekend and continuing into this week.
At times during the weekend, dispatchers had more than 200 calls waiting for a response. Paramedics told CBC News lower priority calls were left unattended for anywhere from four to 16 hours.
"It really feels, from my perspective, that our emergency response system and … the health-care system has collapsed," said one paramedic, whose identity CBC has kept confidential because of a fear of job loss.
"I think what we'll end up seeing is this was probably one of the deadliest natural disasters in B.C. history."
There were 486 sudden and unexpected deaths recorded during the historic heat wave, which broke more than 100 temperature records across the province. The BC 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 (BCEHS) were ill-prepared.
"It's not like it was a tsunami or an earthquake or a volcano eruption. This is something we predicted and nothing was done about it," said the paramedic.
Listen to the full interview: A B.C. paramedic on working during a deadly heat wave
Family waits four hours on hold with 911
Jacqueline Irvine and her brother were with their grandmother outside her Richmond, B.C., home on Monday evening when the elderly woman collapsed and lost consciousness.
Irvine immediately called 911, believing her grandmother was suffering from heat exhaustion, but was placed on hold. Then her grandma stopped breathing.
The pair rolled their grandmother onto her back and, fortunately, Irvine said, she began to breathe again on her own.
They waited almost four hours on hold for an ambulance.
"They told us to please wait it out, but my 77-year-old grandmother was being crawled over by ants. So me and my brother literally just picked her up and tried to drive her to the Richmond hospital," said Irvine.
Irvine said her grandmother has recovered, but the ordeal left the family shaken.
"We were there for four hours. She very easily could have died in my backyard," she said.
Emergency services 'never prepared,' union says
Tory Clifford, president of the paramedics union, said there is a staffing shortage both for paramedics and dispatchers. He said the union has been working through the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid crisis with inadequate staffing since last fall, resulting in about 30 per cent of ambulances provincewide sitting unstaffed.
Clifford told CBC in February he was lobbying BCEHS and the provincial health officer to look for long-term and short-term solutions.
Then, during the unrelenting weekend heat, paramedics were slammed with a record number of calls. On Saturday and Sunday, B.C.'s Emergency communication system called E-comm received more than 15,000 calls — 55 per cent above the daily June average.
"We knew the heat was coming ... and [BCEHS] never really prepared," he said.
CUPE 8911, the union representing emergency call operators in B.C., says there simply aren't enough staff members to properly respond to incoming calls.
"When you call 911, seconds count," said union president Donald Grant.
"When you're on hold, we feel your frustration, pain and suffering. We are working as hard as we can to get to your call," said Grant.
Metro mayors echo cry for help
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said Wednesday he has ordered a review of the city's response.
"We can't have this happen again," he said. "Definitely we're going to take a hard look at ourselves … but with an eye to improvement".
"It may be up to the province to take a wider review. I will leave that for the premier to decide," said Kennedy.
Fatalities 'a part of life'
When patients do make it to hospitals, the situation there can also be grim.
Dr. Neil Barclay, emergency physician and executive medical director of access and flow with the Fraser Health Authority, said hospitals in the region admit, on average, 210 to 220 patients a day. On Tuesday, 523 patients were admitted.
"I have never seen numbers that high," said Barclay, who has practiced in B.C. for 15 years.
And Barclay said many of those suffering the brunt of heat-related illnesses are the population's most vulnerable, such as seniors, dementia patients, people with mobility challenges, people with mental health issues or living with poverty.
"It's a disease of health equity," he said speaking to host Stephen Quinn of CBC's The Early Edition Wednesday.
"If you're in a very hot, small apartment or even worse, if you're a homeless person, you're much more at risk of suffering from illness during this extreme heat wave."
WATCH | Premier John Horgan says fatalities are a part of life:
Speaking Tuesday to reporters, Premier John Horgan was asked why the province wasn't more clear with residents that the heat can be fatal.
"Fatalities are a part of life," responded B.C.'s leader, adding the public was aware of the heat wave. He has since walked the comments back on Twitter, saying, "mourning families deserve our compassion, and the wording of my comments didn't reflect that."
But for many, like the paramedics who dedicate their lives to serving others, the comments made a lasting impression.
"I cried because it's so angering to have people say, and to have your leader say, this just happens and people need to take responsibility," said the paramedic.
"Just own it and say, 'Wow, we messed up and we need to treat this like the disaster it was. And we need to fix the system that allowed this to happen.' "
With files from Susana Da Silva, The Early Edition, As It Happens