A plan by Delta council to train firefighters to handle more medical duties as emergency first responders is being closely watched by other cities in the Lower Mainland and is under fire from unionized ambulance paramedics.
The proposed three-year pilot project wouldn't let firefighters transport patients, but they'd be permitted to perform more tasks now reserved for paramedics, including the insertion of artificial airways, testing and treatment of blood glucose levels and administering some medications, such as injections for allergic reactions.
Surrey fire chief Len Garis said it's "refreshing" that B.C. Emergency Health Services, which runs the ambulance service, has tentatively agreed to authorize the higher level of medical service by firefighters after a previous proposal from Surrey related to triage at motor vehicle accidents was rejected.
He wants to see what evidence comes back from Delta's project, which still awaits final approval in late October from the Provincial Health Services Authority board.
"If it were improving outcomes and service to the public, I think that's an incredibly great thing and that would compel others to look at it," Garis said.
The push for a greater role for firefighter first responders comes after a year of accusations from cities that ambulance service has been severely degraded by the province's move to reduce the priority for less urgent 911 calls in favour of faster response to critical emergencies.
Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said Delta's decision may raise costs for municipal taxpayers and runs contrary to the traditional concern of local governments about downloading by the provincial government.
"The province just decided to reduce their service levels and Delta in this case is deciding to accept it and fill that hole that the ambulance service is not providing," Moore said.
"As soon as we cross that line we start to become an ambulance service and what's the next step after that? I think that's a slippery slope to go down."
The concept was denounced by Bronwyn Barter, union president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., who called it a costly duplication of service that won't resolve the problem of longer ambulance wait times.
"The answer for suffering ambulance response times is not sending in firefighters," she said. "The answer is providing more ambulances staffed with paramedics."
Michael Hurley, president of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters' Association, said his organization doesn't believe Delta's initiative would threaten ambulance paramedic jobs and would withdraw support if that occurred.
"We believe there are not enough paramedics in the system," he said, but added expanding firefighter capabilities makes sense.
"It's pretty hard to be critical of having more highly trained people in your community," Hurley said. "We've been asking for a higher level of training for a long time and especially now due to ambulance waits being longer and longer."
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson argues training of most local firefighters to the new Emergency Responder Licence level and making that a requirement for new recruits will also improve the municipality's ability to respond to a disaster.
"I don't see it as downloading at all," Jackson said, adding there are sometimes long waits for an ambulance at calls where firefighters could provide more medical aid.
Pay levels are also on the rise for Delta firefighters – a new contract signed earlier this year gives them wage increases of 2.5 per cent in each of the eight years.
B.C. Emergency Health Services officials said it was too early to comment on the plan.