Hamilton

Almost twice a day, Brant County doesn't have any ambulances available

The number of times when there are no ambulances available to respond to emergency calls in the County of Brant is "staggering."

Times when no ambulances available for 911 calls soaring

According to the union that represents the County of Brant Ambulance Service, there have been no ambulances available for 911 calls 459 times so far this year alone. (CBC)

Brant County has had 459 incidents in 2017 where there are no ambulances available to respond to emergency calls — an average of almost two a day.

According to the union that represents the County of Brant Ambulance Service — which serves 130,000 people across the county and the City of Brantford — the county is facing a staggering number of code zeros and the political will is not there to address the issue.

Similar problems exist in Hamilton, though the sheer number of "code zeros" in Brant dwarfs numbers currently seen in the city. A consultant hired by Brant says its ambulance issues are significantly worse than of any comparable region in the province.

The union says the agency is dealing with a "severe lack of resources" in the face of surging call volumes and increased offloading times at hospitals — but county officials say they're monitoring the situation, restructuring resources, and things are improving.

"It's pretty staggering," said Jeff Graham, union steward of OPSEU Local 256, which represents Brant paramedics.

"If these patients end up waiting … and it's a stroke or heart attack, those people are going to suffer and there will be deaths. It's inevitable."

A 'significantly' more serious problem than in other regions

A consultant's report commissioned by the county illustrates just how severe the problem has been in recent years. In 2015, Brant experienced "zero available units" occurrences 1,192 times — which is the equivalent of lasting a whole nine calendar days of the year without an ambulance available.

The report also says that average response times for urgent and emergency calls following the onset of a code zero were twice as long as Brant's normal response time, at 17 minutes.

"Brant's 'zero available units' problem is significantly more serious than that experienced by peer Ontario ambulance systems," the report reads.

Union Steward Jeff Graham says this photo from Thursday was taken while the service was in the midst of a code zero. (Jeff Graham)

Brant Mayor Ron Eddy told CBC News that the region is monitoring the situation, and says that numbers are improving in recent months.

"It's better than it was, but it's certainly not perfect," he said. "We're facing up to it, because we have to."

Back in the summer, the municipality added another ambulance, and moved one of its night shift ambulances to the day shift.

That has helped reduce the problem, said County of Brant ambulance chief Charles Longeway. He says the service saw 30 code zero events in the month of August, and a reduction in the length of time a code zero lasts.

"We're quite pleased with the fact that it's trending in a positive direction," he said.

The union says call volumes for service shot up 17 per cent in July of 2017 compared to July of 2016. (CBC)

But Graham says that the ambulance service is cherry picking its numbers, and that August's dip is still far from positive.

"You're still talking one a day. That's still an instance where once a day, there's no ambulance available," he said. "You also have to remember, this is the slow time of year for us. We get busy in cold and flu season, which is coming up.

"They're trying to justify this as being an acceptable number. That one time a day is potentially one person who is severely injured or suffering from a cardiac arrest."

Call volumes surging with aging population

So what is causing the problem? Brant officials say they are facing similar issues to those in Hamilton — an aging population, an increase in 911 call volumes, and offload time problems bringing patients to hospitals.

The consultant's report says that call volumes are up six per cent on average in Brant. But Graham says when you compare month to month, things can be much more striking.

County of Brant Ambulance Chief Charles Longeway says he is pleased with a reduction in code zeros seen in August of 2017. (Shutterstock)

Call volumes shot up 17 per cent in July of 2017 compared to July of 2016, he says.

"July was a horrendous month," Longeway said. "We had a huge call volume."

Offloading times at area hospitals — which refer to how long it takes for a paramedic to actually hand off a patient to the care of a hospital — are also lagging, and causing problems. Paramedics have to wait with patients at the emergency department until they are able to be seen.

"Our emergency department in Brantford was designed to handle 24,000 patients a year, and they're seeing 55,000 patients a year," Longeway said.

Both the ambulance service and the mayor say they will be monitoring the number of code zeros in the region over the next few months, to see if additional resources are needed.

Graham, for his part, is already certain they are.

"Our councillors, they honestly just don't care. They don't care that this is an issue."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

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Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.