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Cities urged to match slower ambulance response

The speed of ambulance service in less-urgent situations is under debate. - File photo
The speed of ambulance service in less-urgent situations is under debate.
— image credit: File photo

A contentious decision by the province to stop dispatching ambulances at high speed for less urgent medical calls was questioned by White Rock councillors this week, following a presentation by B.C. Emergency Health Services officials.

“It seems to me the level of service we’re getting… is going down,” said Coun. Al Campbell, referring to the Resource Allocation Plan implemented in November that slowed ambulances to posted speeds for dozens of routine calls with stable patients.

“If you’re hurt, you want to see a red-and-white.”

Campbell raised the issue with Dr. William Dick, who also spoke at a media briefing Tuesday.

Dick and other BCEHS officials have been on the defensive since November, after which – according to BCEHS – ambulance response times have averaged six minutes slower provincially and 10 minutes slower in the Lower Mainland for the downgraded calls. At the same time, response times to urgent lights-and-sirens emergencies have picked up pace, by about a minute.

In White Rock/South Surrey, average response times “are good,” Dick told council, citing a 17.6-minute response for less urgent calls and 12 minutes for “hot” responses.

“It would be nice to have even quicker times. We have to do the best we can for the sicker patients first.”

Dick said Tuesday officials are “absolutely confident” that the changes are for the better, and paramedics are “getting to sicker patients faster.”

He argued against sending municipal first responders – i.e. firefighters – at high speed to calls that aren’t medically urgent when they can only provide “comfort care” while waiting longer for paramedics to arrive under the revised protocol.

Municipalities are being urged to adopt the same approach to close the gap in response times, noting it could save cities money and reduce the risk of crashes between their responding fire trucks and the public.

Although BCEHS could impose the priority changes on first-responder dispatch as well, it has said it will abide by the wishes of municipalities.

Monday, White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin noted the number of ambulances and manpower hasn’t kept pace with the “huge” population growth seen on the Semiahmoo Peninsula.

He cited the recent experience of a councillor who waited 20 minutes for an ambulance after collapsing due to blood loss – while firefighters arrived at the scene in two minutes – as example of why there is concern.

“We certainly appreciate the challenges you’ve got. What people are most interested in is how long is it going to take,” Baldwin said. “You have to keep the patient foremost as opposed to the rationalization (of the resource).”

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

Tuesday, George Papadopoulos, quality and safety director at BCEHS, said first responders are now “unnecessarily” rushing with lights and siren to 35 per cent of their calls.

BCEHS board chair Wynne Powell said he thinks cities will agree to fall in line voluntarily and consultations are continuing.

So far, 26 out of 160 municipalities consulted by BCEHS have requested more information. Surrey and Vancouver have submitted the most requests for reviews.

– with files from Tracy Holmes

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