COLUMN: It took a tragedy to improve response

The issue of ambulance response times has once again been pushed to the forefront, writes columnist Frank Bucholtz.

The issue of ambulance response times has once again been pushed to the forefront, largely thanks to the persistence of a reporter.

It came up in connection with the tragic death of Dario Bartoli, 15, after an apparent swarming on Dec. 14, 2014, at 154 Street and 18 Avenue in South Surrey. Bartoli managed to stagger to a nearby home, and police were called at that time.

Janet Brown, a longtime CKNW reporter who lives in Surrey, heard that Surrey fire Chief Len Garis had written a letter to the ambulance service about its response time. She asked the City of Surrey for a copy of the letter. It sent a copy with almost everything blanked out.

Brown appealed the city’s decision to the provincial freedom of information office, which after a series of delays finally released most of the letter to her. This took place last week.

Garis’s letter, written in January 2015, stated that Surrey RCMP called the ambulance service for assistance after they were alerted to the incident. Garis noted in the letter that the police were on hold for three minutes. A second call was made to confirm an ambulance was on the way.

Due to the lack of response, Surrey fire department was then called. It apparently did not respond to the initial call, likely because the 911 call had been routed to Surrey RCMP.

Brown has still not been able to find out how long it took for the ambulance to arrive. That portion of the letter has been blanked out by the provincial FOI office. Nonetheless, an ambulance finally did arrive.

Paramedics spent 13 minutes stabilizing Bartoli before transporting him to Peace Arch Hospital, about two blocks away. The teenager died in hospital hours later.

Linda Lupini, executive vice-president of the Provincial Health Services Authority, admitted the response was not good. She said the BCAS has since changed its processes. The ambulance service has also since added three ambulances in Surrey.

Garis’s letter makes the point that there is inconsistency when citizens request ambulance service, despite a longstanding first-responder agreement between the fire department and the ambulance service.

“Changes in the past (to the agreement) have been communicated prior to implementation and both parties work together to ensure the timely response of first responders as well as paramedics to citizen needs,” the letter states.

It’s good that the ambulance service has added more ambulances to Surrey, as the demand is growing substantially, due to both population growth and a surge in drug-related issues. Between 2014 and 2015, calls for service jumped to 52,000 from 48,000.

However, it is unfortunate that it took a tragic death to prompt changes in how ambulances are dispatched, and questions remain about just how ambulances are dispatched.

The fire department does an excellent job as first responders, but in many cases, paramedics are required. In a city that is growing as fast as Surrey, there needs to be considerably more paramedics than there are today – and there needs to be a plan to add paramedics and ambulances on a regular basis.

It also needs to be said that the City of Surrey’s initial response to a request for a copy of the letter was unnecessarily secretive and is not in the best interests of citizens.

The city’s involvement in the current debate over school capital funding shows that when the city gets involved, much more can happen.

The City of Surrey needs to be going to bat for citizens, in a public and vocal manner, to ensure that there are enough ambulances and paramedics to serve Surrey’s growing population.

Bartoli’s death is considered a homicide. As of yet, no arrests have been made.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News. frank.bucholtz@gmail.com