Paramedics union raises alarm over spike in out-of-service ambulances

Staffing shortages affecting service levels in Kootenays

The union that represents BC’s paramedics warns that staffing shortages are affecting service levels and patient care all across the province, including the Kootenay region.

Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC (APBC) president Cameron Eby says for the last six weeks the number of ambulances designated as out of service has spiked due to a lack of staff.

Eby shared a few recent examples: during the day shift on Saturday, March 16, four stations in the Kootenays were without an ambulance and during the night shift on Sunday, March 17, six units were out of service.

“The issue we have seen … is a staggering number of ambulances going out of service, particularly on the night and weekend and we think that is leaving communities underserved,” said Eby.

“A big concern in the more rural areas is that when the next ambulance is coming from another community some distance away, then, of course, there is a dramatic impact on response times and ultimately to patient care,” said Eby.

“We’ve been talking for some time that in many centres the number of ambulances aren’t adequate to cover the volume to begin with.

“We should have enough resources in each area so it is the exception, not the rule, that cars are going to be covering other communities.”

RELATED: Auditor’s report points to gaps in ambulance service for rural B.C.

Eby says a major problem in rural regions like the Kootenays is the difficulty with recruiting and retaining staff due to the fact many positions are on-call rather than full time.

“Smaller communities really struggle to keep those ambulances staffed,” he said.

Because the problem is province wide, a trickle down effect is exacerbating the problem. Understaffing and vacant full time positions in the Lower Mainland mean paramedics are pulled from rural centres to staff the urban centres, he said.

“Then the rural centre pulls someone from a remote centre and it’s areas like the Kootenays that become depleted of paramedics,” said Eby.

He also says things don’t have to be this way.

“If you look at somewhere like Ontario that does not rely on an on-call work force … they have a surplus of thousands of paramedics coming out of school fighting for jobs.

“It is a completely different reality in Ontario.”

He also said that unfortunately those Ontario paramedics don’t want to come to B.C. due to lower wages compared to the cost of living in this province.

Eby says although the reasons may vary from city to city, province wide the problem boils down to recruitment and retention.

Staffing issues are also affecting call centres.

“That translates literally into 911 calls being on hold and waiting in a queue to be answered,” said Eby. “Which leads to more dispatcher and call taker fatigue and burn out and more people off sick, and the problem gets worse.”

According to APBC, paramedics in B.C. experience some of the highest workloads in Canada.

APBC also cites a survey administered to paramedic organizations across the country by the Mental Health Commission of Canada that found 81 per cent of paramedics and dispatchers in B.C. report they feel that B.C. Emergency Health Service does not monitor compassion fatigue and burnout, while the majority feel they do not have an appropriate balance of call volume to recovery time.

“Having adequate staffing has to be the baseline we start from,” concluded Eby.

RELATED: Critical Condition Investigation into pre-hospital care in rural B.C.

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