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Emergency responders voice ambulance woes in Bella Coola and Haida Gwaii

Ambulance service needs to step up to honour mandate of providing ambulance service — retired staff
Emergency responders in North Coast communities are voicing concerns about ambulances left empty of staff, and not enough personnel to cover emergency calls leaving gaps in service. (Black Press file.)

Various Haida Gwaii and North Coast locations have ‘tremendous ambulance problems’ like all other rural areas, including Prince Rupert, Sandspit Fire Chief Robert Ellis said on August 12.

There is currently only one paramedic servicing Sandspit, which leaves holes in emergency coverage and the necessity for community volunteers to drive the ambulance when it is called for. Ellis said he is the only Class 4 driver’s licence holder in his fire crew and the three community members he knows of have their licence from driving taxis or vans.

“Whenever there’s an ambulance call, we often are called upon to drive the ambulance; otherwise, it wouldn’t go anywhere. This has been happening since November because apparently, the government, ambulance service, and BCEHS can’t figure this out,” he told Black Press Media.

Before November, Sandspit ambulance staff could work part-time shifts, but with the new Schedule on Call (SOC) system of full-time positions, this is no longer an option, so many staff have left, he said.

Ellis said it is the same problem the fire chief in Prince Rupert raised at a recent city council meeting where the lack of paramedics is causing other emergency responders to fill in service gaps, but “on a smaller scale in a more critical area.”

Additionally, the whole fire crew in Sandspit are volunteers and not paid, so when a call comes in to drive, Ellis has to leave his paid employment to assist BC Ambulance Services. He has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years in many locations in the north.

“I have to make the decision … I have to see if maybe the other two people can take that call to go along with a paramedic. Like I may have to say no, I can’t go.”

“People are concerned about that. We need to have an ambulance service. And when people call an ambulance, we need to have somebody drive it. But we can’t always go when the call comes,” the volunteer fire chief said.

The lack of ambulance drivers and paramedics is not isolated to Sandspit. He said he is aware there are issues in Skidegate and Daajing Giids (formerly Queen Charlotte) as well as other Northcoast locations.

“I know because I’ve gone on calls where we’ve met the Charlotte ambulance, and there is a volunteer firefighter driving the ambulance from Charlotte,” he said, adding the same has happened when he has met the Skidegate ambulance.

Since Ellis spoke with the journalist, Black Press reported on August 15 a deceased woman’s body in Bella Coola had to be transported to the hospital morgue in the back of a police pickup truck when ambulance staff could not attend the medical call.

He said that the problems have impacted the small rural areas since a new BC Emergency Health Services (BC EHS) hiring model took effect. But, this new model has left gaps in staff coverage with times where there has been no ambulance coverage at all if there was an emergency.

As a contingency plan, he said in Sandspit it was worked out between the organizations that the ambulance service would call the fire department if there was no coverage.

“[The plan was] I would go to the ambulance station, which is co-located with the fire hall. I would get the ambulance and drive it to the airport. Then they would fly that medivac helicopter in, so then we would go attend the call,” he said, adding they haven’t had to use that plan so far.

Locum paramedics have been flown in from the Lower Mainland to help for a week at a time, but this is at a high cost as flights, accommodations, meals and wages all need to be paid, he explained.

Recently retired Bella Coola BC Ambulance paramedic Jeffrey Snow said that ambulance coverage worked very well in his small community under the previous employment model because people wore many hats and could balance part-time shifts with other activities or employment.

However, he explained the SOC model of three 24-hour shifts on and three 24-hour shifts off, with staff having to stay at the station for the first eight hours of a shift receiving full pay and the rest of the shift being on a pager system at $2.00 per hour. He said this is very different from the old model and prohibits people from working part-time. He said that rest time before the next shift or days off for ambulance staff are where the gaps are occurring.

“We were able to have people cover those shifts for 30 years, plus. I guess we may have been out of service one day with the [previous employment model] scenario.”

“We needed the flexibility in order to keep the car up and running,” he said. “…whereas with the SOC, you can not possibly hold down a second job … So basically, that deterred a lot of people from staying on.”

“The attraction for the SOC is not there. The pay is not there, so people can not pay their mortgage on 24 hours a week pay.”

Prior to the SOC, Snow said there were four ambulance attendants and four drivers, with a team of two working each shift in Bella Coola.

“At this point, as far as I know, there’s only three now, two drivers and one attendant.”

“The BC Ambulance service really has to step up to basically honour their mandate to provide ambulance service,” Snow said.

With files from Kaitlyn Bailey

 K-J Millar | Editor and Multimedia Journalist 
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