Burnaby firefighters cite one-hour-plus waits for ambulances

Burnaby firefighters say they
Burnaby firefighters say they've seen several examples of ambulances arriving more than an hour after first responders since the new response allocation plan went into effect in late October.
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By Wanda Chow - Burnaby NewsLeader

and Jeff Nagel - Black Press

Burnaby firefighters and politicians continue to question the changes in protocol they say are compromising the response times of ambulances and paramedics.

Last week, Burnaby deputy fire chief administration Joe Robertson wrote to Dr. William Dick, vice-president of medical programs for B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS), outlining 11 cases of involving waits of more than an hour since the change in late October.

They include a 90-year-old woman who fell, had a large laceration the back of the head and no memory of the incident. "Unable to control bleed," the letter said. The ambulance arrived one hour and 23 minutes after firefighters.

A 26-year-old woman waited one hour and 53 minutes after suffering a seizure and falling off a massage table, sustaining a possible head injury.

A 103-year-old man fell from his wheelchair and suffered a head injury. He waited an hour and 13 minutes. And a 77-year-old man who had fallen and lay on the floor for two days without food or water waited another hour and eight minutes for an ambulance after firefighters first arrived.

A 60-year-old woman suffered a shoulder and arm injury after falling down the stairs but waited two hours and one minute for paramedics to show up. While she had normal vital signs, "non-emerg is appropriate yet two hours is a long time."

There were an additional 67 incidents during the same time period—November through March—where ambulances arrived more than 30 minutes after firefighters, Robertson wrote.

The province is sticking to its contentious decision to stop dispatching ambulances at high speed for less urgent medical calls and municipal fire department first responders are being urged to adopt the same approach.

Officials at BCEHS have been on the defensive since the November implementation of their new Resource Allocation Plan, which slowed ambulances to posted speeds for dozens of types of routine calls with stable patients.

Ambulance response times have since averaged six minutes slower provincially and 10 minutes slower in the Lower Mainland for the downgraded calls, according to BCEHS, while enabling about one minute faster responses on urgent lights-and-siren emergencies.

Lower Mainland fire chiefs and city councils have denounced the changes as a service reduction and cite extreme delays for ambulances arriving at downgraded calls.

"We're absolutely confident that we're correct in the assignments that we've changed," said Dr. William Dick, interim vice-president of medical programs at BCEHS. "We are getting to sicker patients faster."

He and other officials at a Tuesday media briefing argued against sending municipal first responders at high speed to calls that aren't medically urgent when those firefighters can only provide "comfort care" while waiting longer for ambulance paramedics to arrive under their revised protocol.

First responders are now "unnecessarily" rushing with lights and siren to 35 per cent of their calls, according to George Papadopoulos, quality and safety director at BCEHS.

"That has created a gap in response time that is being used in the media to say there's downloading [of ambulance costs to cities]," he said. "If they implemented the changes that we've implemented for ourselves there would be no gap in the response times. And therefore no argument around downloading."

Cities could save money if they adopted the same rules for their first responders, BCEHS says, and also reduce the risk of crashes between their responding fire trucks and the public.

There were 225 ambulance crashes with the public while lights and sirens were on in the last three years, and passing emergency vehicles are also blamed in other "wake collisions" where other vehicles collide trying to get out of the way.

BCEHS spokesperson Kelsie Carwithen confirmed that Dick received the Burnaby fire department's letter and will be reviewing the calls mentioned.

The "majority of calls [resulting in long waits] that are being brought forward are extremely rare cases and not the norm," she said by email. "In Burnaby, we are seeing a 20 second improvement in our code 3 response times since the changes were implemented."

Burnaby-Deer Lake NDP MLA Kathy Corrigan noted that firefighters are trained mostly in basic first aid and not to assess patients or provide medical treatment. To not have paramedics available in a timely fashion to take over is "rolling the dice."

"How can you say when someone is in the middle of a second-trimester miscarriage and is bleeding heavily, that this is not appropriate for an ambulance? It's preposterous," she said, calling it "another download onto municipal governments."

Burnaby Coun. Colleen Jordan was among city officials that met with Dick last week to discuss their concerns. She came away feeling the resource allocation plan is "a way of

rationing the service" due to a lack of resources.

Jordan scoffed at BCEHS advocating that municipal fire departments follow their lead in not always rushing to calls with lights and sirens. "Ask the people that are laying on the sidewalk and they want people to come."

At Monday's council meeting, Mayor Derek Corrigan recounted a case he heard of Burnaby firefighters arriving at a single-vehicle accident but not being able to determine what was wrong with the driver.

They called for an ambulance but, due to their lack of training, couldn't identify any serious symptoms. Fortunately, a passerby who is a doctor had a look and discovered the driver was having a heart attack, which likely caused the accident.

The doctor was able to reprioritize the call to an urgent ambulance response. The firefighters said otherwise it may have been an hour before paramedics arrived.

"I worry we're going to lose a life. I think it's just a matter of time," the mayor said. "We have to have the resources to be able to respond to an accident in a timely manner. Waiting an hour could cost someone their life. This incident really brought that home to me."

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