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B.C. vows to overhaul ambulance service after deadly heat wave

Health Minister Adrian Dix says the province would provide immediate funding to hire dozens of new paramedics and dispatchers as the ministry moves to 'renew' the ambulance service for the 21st century.

The B.C. government is moving to add dozens of new full-time paramedics, dispatchers and ambulances following a record-breaking heat wave that is thought to have taken the lives of hundreds of people.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix says the province would provide immediate funding to hire 85 new full-time paramedics, 30 full-time dispatchers and 22 ambulances. Also adding, another 22 rural ambulance stations will be moved to a 24/7 schedule.

The latest changes mean the ambulance service will move from an on-call system to permanent staff, both part- and full-time, says the minister.

“This is a cultural transition for the ambulance service. We’re slowly making that transition of bringing the ambulance service into the 21st century. But we need some immediate action,” says Dix. 

In May, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) announced it would add 500 staff to its workforce in rural and remote regions of the province.

What the staff increase looks like in urban parts of the province, where sudden deaths were concentrated during the heat wave, is not clear.

NEW LEADERSHIP TO LEAD AMBULANCE 'RENEWAL'

Dix says he has appointed former Vancouver Police Department chief constable Jim Chu to lead the BC Emergency Health Services board of directors. 

At the same time, Dix directed BCEHS to be led by a chief ambulance officer who will responsible for day-to-day operations. Clinical nurse specialist Leanne Heppell will take over that role on an interim basis. 

Together, Chu and Heppell will lead a “renewal” of the ambulance service and provide guidance on further actions starting next year. 

In the interim, Dix says mental health professionals will be made available to address chronic stress and fatigue in the ambulance service.

The record-breaking heat wave that scorched B.C. from June 25 to July 1 pushed emergency services to their limit. In one case, Vancouver Fire and Rescue crews reported waiting 11 hours for an ambulance to show up and transfer a patient suffering heat illness.

Dix says the province is now directing the Emergency Medical Assistants Management Licensing Board to assess how it might expand firefighters’ scope of practice. Those recommendations will be presented by Sept. 6, 2021.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia, previously told Glacier Media pressure has been building on ambulance crews for months. The heat wave, he says, only revealed how unprepared emergency services are for a crisis situation.

It’s a crisis that Clifford says could have been mitigated had BCEHS planned for what climate scientists have been saying all along — that hotter, drier summers would become the new normal. 

“We know we’re going to face floods, fires,” he says. “We should have been planning for it a long time ago. It’s not unpredictable.”

HEAT WAVE LED TO 'CARNAGE'

One Metro Vancouver paramedic told Glacier Media that the June 28 shift "was the most horrific experience" in his decade-plus on the job, calling the shift "carnage.” 

He says many high-priority calls were put on hold for over 15 hours. The paramedic says some colleagues were vomiting as their partner was telling them they had to respond to another call. 

At Surrey Memorial Hospital, where he was taking some patients, the situation was dire. Patients were in the hallways, on the floor. At the same time, the dead were reportedly being stored in waiting areas and hallways because people were dying and there was nowhere to put them.

"There were nurses crying, there were paramedics collapsing," says the paramedic. "People were showing up in their cars with dead people."

CALLS STILL UP AFTER HEAT WAVE DEATHS 

To date, the BC Coroners Service has reported 579 more sudden deaths than the five-year average over the same period. 

None of the deaths have been confirmed as heat-related and investigators are still working to establish how and why so many more people died when compared to previous years, noted the BC Coroners Service.

Death by heat is notoriously hard to track as rising temperatures can trigger chronic illnesses; or, they get recorded as heart or kidney failure.

However, B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe says she suspects at least a portion of the spike in deaths to be heat-related; many of those who passed away were found alone in poorly ventilated apartments.

“This, frankly, took many of us off guard,” says Lapointe in the days following the heat wave. “I think it’s very likely many of us misunderstood the extreme risk.” 

Since the heat wave, Dix says ambulance crews have been working “flat out,” with calls for overdoses, heart problems, chest and abdominal pains all up over the last six months. 

“We’ve seen a very significant increase in the highest priority calls,” says Dix. “The events of the last few weeks make it clear there is more work to be done." 

With files from Brendan Kergin

Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everything in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email slabbe@glaciermedia.ca.