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Changes to Pemberton ambulance delivery raise concerns

Lack of staffing and deployment models weighing on paramedics
A new Scheduled On-Call model of ambulance delivery may lead to increased response times in Pemberton, critics say.

Changes are coming to ambulance delivery in Pemberton, and some say the result might be increased wait times for patients.

Pemberton is one of 87 stations across B.C. shifting to a Scheduled On-Call (SOC) model this fall, according to BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS).

Currently, Pemberton has one 90-second response ambulance operating 24 hours a day, as well as one call-out ambulance with no set response time.

Under the SOC model, paramedics are scheduled for regular shifts, meaning they are paid full wages, but are not required to be at the ambulance station.

According to BCEHS, the changes will improve services to patients while stabilizing paramedic staffing.

“The changes in staffing mean the creation of more than 500 new positions across the province—including two new paramedic positions in Pemberton,” said Sarah Morris, media relations with BCEHS, in an email, adding that the changes are part of the implementation of the negotiated collective agreement with the Paramedics and Dispatchers Association of BC.

While the SOC was negotiated by the union as an improvement, it’s not a great fit for Pemberton, said provincial union president Troy Clifford.

“It is for the most part a real improvement to most communities’ responses, but in communities where you already have an immediate response with our standby at the station, when you’re reverting to a call-out in the community model, that could delay responses,” Clifford said.

“Right now [in Pemberton] you have an immediate response with a standby ambulance at the station, which is being phased out in lieu of this process. That could increase response times outside of the non-scheduled-on-call regular positions.”

The Pemberton Firefighters Association raised the alarm about the switch in a Facebook post on June 22, noting that the new model will increase the workload for Pemberton’s volunteer firefighters.

Firefighters support ambulance paramedics by providing emergency services such as scene assessment, CPR, and basic wound and fracture management until paramedics arrive, the association said.

“Firefighters are not paramedics and cannot provide the advanced care that paramedics can,” it said. “Longer response times by paramedics will negatively impact patient care for the most sick and injured. Fire departments in B.C. also do not have the ability to transport any patients to hospitals or health clinics.”

According to BCEHS, calls for ambulances in Pemberton were on the rise prior to COVID-19. Pemberton ambulances responded to 599 calls in 2018, 711 in 2019 and 636 in 2020. As of June 20, they had responded to 270 calls so far in 2021.

In Whistler, paramedics responded to 1,916 calls in 2018, 2,071 in 2019 and 1,592 in 2020. As of June 20, Whistler had 669 calls so far in 2021.

Staffing and deployment models have only compounded challenges for paramedics and dispatchers throughout the Sea to Sky corridor, Clifford said, noting the dual crises over the past 15 months of COVID-19 and opioid overdoses.

“And then you add on top of that our staffing and workload and recruitment and retention challenges, and I’ve been saying it’s like a triple threat, or it’s a perfect storm-type scenario that has really exposed it and made it our vulnerability, for sure,” he said.

“The staffing and the fatigue and the impacts on wellness are not unique to the big cities; they’re in fact in every corner of the province.”

To its credit, the government “is putting a lot of resources and funding” into the ambulance service, “but what we’ve been saying is we need to really address those frontline recruitment and retention issues and the wellness of our paramedics and dispatchers,” Clifford said.

“I would say those are our biggest priorities right now, because all of those things are intertwined [with] looking after our patients.”

Are you a paramedic in the Sea to Sky with concerns about staffing, response times and deployment models? Pique wants to speak with you. Email reporter Braden Dupuis at [email protected] or call 604-938-0202.