British Columbia

Should people in rural B.C. expect sub-par emergency services?

A report from B.C.'s Forest Safety Ombudsman criticizes an attitude in B.C.'s emergency services that views rural living as "a choice" that naturally comes with worse care than what is available in urban centres.

Ombudsman says many in charge think people in rural areas 'made a choice' to get worse care in emergencies

Forest Safety Ombudsman Roger Harris suggests local health authorities take over air ambulance service in order to better respond to emergencies in rural regions. (BC Emergency Health Services/Twitter)

A report from B.C.'s Forest Safety Ombudsman criticizes an attitude in B.C.'s emergency services that views rural living as "a choice" that comes with worse care than what's available in urban centres.

The ombudsman also said there's a clear urban-rural divide in emergency care available to people in B.C., placing the blame on government policy.

Roger Harris opens A Report On Helicopter Emergency Medical Services in B.C. with the story of a logger whose leg was crushed by a tree while working on Haida Gwaii in 2014. 

It took him five hours, using two boats and a mechanic's vehicle but no helicopter, to get to a hospital in Queen Charlotte City, and then another six hours more to get to Vancouver. 

"By the time the faller finally received appropriate medical attention, he had to have his leg amputated below the knee, a result that might have been avoided had he been transported to a hospital in a timely manner," Harris concludes.

Harris said he found many people in charge of B.C. Ambulance and B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) view long response times as a cost of living in remote parts of the province.

"It is not surprising that rural services lag those in the urban centres when those responsible for providing a provincial service have already conceded this point," he wrote.

BCEHS executive vice president Linda Lupini said that attitude does not reflect the views of her organization.

"No matter the location, air ambulances and paramedics are dispatched according to the care needs of each patient, and the level of urgency required," she said in a statement.

She also said WorkSafeBC requires employers in remote areas to be responsible for transporting injured workers.

Ambulance care a frustration for remote communities

Harris said it's not just workers who are suffering from slow response times.

He cited the story of a woman who had a stroke north of Fort Nelson and had to wait nearly 24 hours before being taken to an appropriate hospital in Dawson Creek.

In 2016, it took nearly 24 hours for B.C. Ambulance to transport a woman who had a stroke north of Fort Nelson to hospital in Dawson Creek. The drive from where she had the stroke to Dawson Creek is approximately eight hours. (Tammy Kaleta)

"It's like we're a little northern community, and they'll get to us when they feel like it," Fort Nelson mayor Bill Streeper told CBC after the incident.

The issue also made headlines in 2014 when a Skidegate band councillor on Haida Gwaii died from a heart attack while waiting for an ambulance.

Guaranteed response times needed

"I think the only way that you guarantee equal access [to care] is that you actually put in place legislated times by which people can access health care," Harris told CBC Daybreak North host Robert Doane.

Listen to the full interview with Harris.

He recommends the B.C. government set guaranteed response times for traumas across the province, pointing to Alaska and Washington as models to follow.

"Time becomes the critical factor," he explained. "It's done in other jurisdictions. It forces governments through their delivery model, which in this case is B.C. Ambulance, to put in place the infrastructure that can do that."

"You can't just look at trying to work within the system, you need to make some fundamental changes."

He suggested helicopters be deployed more often in rural emergencies. He also said it may be wise to give local health authorities some control over B.C. Ambulance.

Lupini said she shares the goal of providing care to everyone in the province and that BCEHS is reviewing the report.

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Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at You can also send encrypted messages using Signal to 250.552.2058.