The B.C. government is responding to a surge in 911 calls as COVID-19 infection and activity restrictions recede, and the drug overdose crisis continues to grow.
Health Minister Adrian Dix announced Wednesday that the province is funding 85 new full-time paramedic positions, 30 full-time dispatchers and 22 ambulances to the system, in addition to increases in recent years. B.C. Emergency Health Service is also converting 22 rural ambulance stations to round-the-clock operation, with plans for an additional 16 stations by October.
Dix said B.C. has hired 271 paramedics since the start of 2021, as the ambulance service has continued a move away from on-call positions to part-time and full-time staff, which were only 35 per cent of the workforce when he began as health minister.
Since the heat wave hit B.C. two weeks ago, 911 calls have spiked, including the most urgent such as overdoses, up 28 per cent since 2019, and heart problems, up 24 per cent in the same period. Dix said COVID-19 restrictions reduced ambulance calls, but those have “really spiked since we’ve started to open up” and there have been delayed responses as ambulance crews have been overwhelmed at times.
“When we call for help, we need to know help is on the way, and that it will arrive quickly,” Dix said July 14.
Dix announced changes to the board of directors of B.C. Emergency Health Services, putting its focus entirely on the ambulance paramedic program and appointing former Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu as board chair. A new chief ambulance officer is in charge of the service, with nurse and administrator Leanne Heppell appointed on an interim basis.
To deal with the burnout and stress of the job, the ministry has ordered BCEHS to contract a team of mental health professionals to work with dispatchers and paramedics to address “chronic stress,” fatigue and access to trauma-informed therapy for people on the job.
One of the last initiatives for former B.C. Liberal health minister Terry Lake was to expand the paramedic home visit program to 70 small communities, to allow on-call paramedics making as little as $2 per hour to make a living.