Ambulances are taking longer to get to low-priority calls but officials say it's allowed faster response to critically urgent calls.

Ambulances are taking longer to get to low-priority calls but officials say it's allowed faster response to critically urgent calls.

Long ambulance waits for low-priority calls under fire

'Safer' service shift defended as equivalent of triage of hospital ER resources

B.C. firefighters say a downgrade in response priority for less urgent medical calls by the B.C. Ambulance Service has resulted in much longer waits for paramedics to arrive.

A reallocation of ambulance service last fall shifted dozens of call types – often for broken bones and other incidents where the patient is medically stable – so that those ambulances now roll at posted speed limits without lights and siren, rather than code 3 at high speed.

Officials say it’s meant an average of six minutes slower arrival times to those calls, but allowed one minute faster average responses to urgent life-or-death emergencies like heart attacks, while reducing the risk of high-speed crashes between ambulances and other vehicles.

B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association president Mike Hurley said that doesn’t match what fire department first responders are seeing.

“Our experience in the field is it’s anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes and longer for an ambulance to show up,” Hurley said of the downgraded calls.

“They’ve lessened the service to the citizens of each community.”

He said the types of calls that are now dispatched at routine speeds include serious falls, serious hemorrhages and certain pregnancy calls.

They make up about nine per cent of overall ambulance calls, according to a report on the reallocation plan, and mean 800,000 fewer kilometres of lights-and-siren driving each year.

Dr. William Dick, vice-president of medical programs at B.C. Emergency Health Services, said the changes flow from a rigorous two-year expert review that assessed outcomes for patients and the risks of high-speed ambulance driving.

“It’s safer to the driving public, it’s safer for our paramedics and it’s safer for our patients,” Dick said Wednesday.

He likened the change to hospital triage policies that give the most urgent cases priority ahead of patients who can safely wait longer.

“We’re doing the same thing they’re doing in the emergency department but we’re doing it on the street or in people’s homes.”

Dick said a rolling analysis of the changes has so far found no change in medical outcomes for patients whose call priority was reduced.

Several fire departments and municipalities have criticized the change.

A report by the Vancouver Fire Department estimates ambulance response times there are an average of 21 minutes slower and Burnaby has also reported a jump in long ambulance waits.

Dick said he believes reports of extreme waits are anomalies and none of the cases involve people in medical danger.

Several Metro Vancouver mayors say the service change amounts to downloading of costs by the province because firefighters who respond first end up waiting longer with patients, sometimes incurring more overtime as well.

“They are reducing quality of service,” Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said. “Sometimes the patient’s family has driven someone to the hospital, which is just not appropriate.”

BCEHS maintains the changes are not a money-saving measure but are strictly to improve care by speeding response to those in most urgent need.

And it contends municipalities could make smarter use of their own resources by redeploying firefighters to other services if they didn’t opt to dispatch them to routine calls where first responders aren’t medically required.

Mike McNamara, president of the Surrey Firefighters Association, said firefighters fear fire halls won’t get dispatched to the calls deemed less urgent at all in the future, leaving patients to wait longer without aid.

“One crew waited over 45 minutes for a lady that fell and broke her hip,” he said, recounting one recent incident of ambulance delay in Surrey.

Of particular concern, he said, are cases when a panicked 911 caller gives unclear information that results in an ambulance being dispatched at low priority to a call that proves more urgent.

“There is room for error there,” McNamara said.

Because there are many more fire halls than ambulance stations, fire departments maintain they’re uniquely placed to act as first responders with quicker response times.

“What happens when [dispatchers] get it wrong?” McNamara asked. “We’re just down the street and it’s a real emergency. We’re just minutes away from helping this person and we’re not going.”

Dick said BCEHS is consulting cities on the changes and promised a further review of the results.

He said there are no plans to exclude fire halls from low priority calls if the local city still wants its firefighters to respond to provide “comfort care” while awaiting an ambulance.

“I will not arbitrarily cut anyone off,” Dick said. “I question the wisdom of spending a really expensive resource when it’s not required medically. But it’s not my decision to make.”

– with files from Diane Strandberg

Just Posted

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes following provincial reopening announcement

Recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

HMCS Corner Brook returned to Victoria’s waters for the first time since 2015 on June 10. (Courtesy of the Royal Canadian Navy)
WATCH: Navy surveillance submarine returning to Victoria waters

HMCS Corner Brook one of first submarines to receive new communications systems

A new multi-family residential project at the corner of Hillside Avenue and Cook Street will feature nine below market-priced units aimed at middle-income, first-time homebuyers, through a partnership between BC Housing and the developer. (Courtesy City of Victoria)
Middle-income first time homebuyers gain access to nine homes in Victoria

BC Housing partners with development community to create affordable purchases

The District of Saanich has pinpointed funding requests to Oak Bay and Victoria to help offset the purchase price of the Kings Park greenspace and keep the property intact. (Courtesy District of Saanich)
Saanich requests funding help from neighbours to preserve Kings Road green space

District hopes Victoria and Oak Bay will join them in protecting urban green space

Thriving Toots Wilderness School is trying to buy a 98-acre plot of undeveloped land from the Boys and Girls’ Club of Greater Victoria in Metchosin. (Contributed/Thriving Roots)
Hopeful buyers of Boys and Girls’ Club land in Metchosin would keep it wild

Nature-based school, partners trying to secure financing to buy 98-acre property: school director

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Darren Campbell’s truck (pictured) was stolen when he stopped to check on a car in a ditch on Cowichan Bay Road on Monday morning. (Facebook photo)
Vancouver Island Good Samaritan’s truck stolen in nasty trick

‘Try to be a Good Samaritan and my $20,000 truck gets stolen right under my nose’

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Creative handmade signs abound at the June 13 Tofino rally for old growth trees. (Nora O’Malley photo)
VIDEO: Tofino stands in solidarity for Fairy Creek Blockades

Over 150 supporters attend rally hosted by Friends of Clayoquot Sound

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials watching U.K.’s Delta variant struggles, ‘may need to slow’ restart plan

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during an appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Appeal Court rejects stay for Alberta couple facing third trial in son’s death

Pair accused in their earlier trials of not seeking medical attention for their son sooner

Highway notices like this come down effective June 14. Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and commercial operation have hit local businesses in every corner of B.C. (B.C. government)
Province-wide travel back on in B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan

Gathering changes include up to 50 people for outdoor events

Calgary Stampeders’ Jerome Messam leaps over a tackle during second half CFL western semifinal football action in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
CFL football will be played this summer in Canada

Governors vote unanimously in favour to start the ‘21 campaign on Aug. 5

Most Read