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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Canadian Reformed Church in Chilliwack. (GoogleMaps)
OPINION: Churches that defy the law and public health orders are in the extreme minority

The nature of news coverage means that aberrations from the norm are what make the headlines

Projects recently approved by council will tackle homelessness in Chilliwack. (Black Press file photo)
Latest projects taking on homelessness in Chilliwack focused on pandemic pivoting

4 key service providers will share a blended fund of almost $160,000 in Reaching Home funding

Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend service, in Chilliwack, B.C., on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Lawyers for the British Columbia government and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms are back in B.C. Supreme Court today, squaring off over the legality of COVID-19 rules that prohibit in-person religious services. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. top doctor has power to restrict access to a place during health hazard: lawyer

Under B.C.’s Public Health Act, Jacqueline Hughes says, Henry can restrict or prevent entry to a place

These free, postage-paid postcards were sent to 13.5 million households across Canada. (Jennifer Feinberg/ The Chilliwack Progress)
OPINION: Singing the praises of these postcards of positivity

I typed this ode to the loveliness of hand-written notes on a computer but the point still stands

Snow is still coming down in Hemlock Valley. (Emil Anderson Maintenance/Twitter)
VIDEO: Spring is coming, but snow sticking around in Hemlock Valley

If you’re up the mountain, don’t put away your toques just yet

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA reveals COVID-19 outbreak

Tsartlip First Nation chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA apologizes

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Most Read