The union representing paramedics and emergency dispatchers in B.C. says staff shortages have reached unprecedented levels, affecting regions across the province.
During at least one night shift last week, 24 to 40 paramedic units were out of service in the Sea to Sky, Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley regions, the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC said in a news release Tuesday, calling the circumstance “unacceptable and potentially harmful.”
President Cameron Eby said B.C. paramedics experience some of the highest workloads in the country, with many paramedics in urban areas working above the standard recognized by BC Emergency Health Services decades ago.
“Current workloads in many areas of our province are unsustainable, and we see this reflected in our out of service rates,” Eby said. “Overtime has become the rule, not the exception.”
BC Emergency Health Services senior director Neil Lilley acknowledged in an emailed statement to Black Press Media there are ambulance shortages from time to time, saying about 15 units were out of service on Saturday and Sunday.
Ambulances can be unstaffed when paramedics call in sick and when they must go for training, and when there are open jobs, Lilley said.
Auditor General Carol Bellringer said in a February report that ambulances in rural and urban areas often miss targeted response times, and as a result, many patients are not getting the care they need.
BC EHS has been hiring more paramedics and buying more ambulances since 2017. Officials have also been pursuing alternatives to the traditional response of rushing a patient to an emergency room, such as treating them at the scene.
Lilley said an aging population and the overdose crisis “taking its toll.”
“Despite current demands, response times for the most critical calls in high volume areas such as Vancouver are holding steady, and we credit our staff with maintaining this,” he added. “We do know that some patients with less-urgent conditions may be waiting longer at peak times, as we respond to the life-threatening and urgent calls.”
Eby argued that hiring new paramedics in busy cities like Vancouver leaves positions vacant elsewhere.
“BC EHS has been using short-term solutions like vacation overtime and has approved travel expenses for out-of-town paramedics to work overtime in the Lower Mainland – solutions that do not contribute to a reliable future for B.C.’s ambulance service.”