Ambulance service slow and getting slower in Tri-Cities

Response times have slowed across the board in the Tri-Cities due to both planning and staffing issues

Coquitlam residents in life-threatening situations waited longer for an ambulance to arrive than residents in almost every other major city in B.C., according to data obtained by the Fraser Valley Current.

Based on median figures for 2020, it took an ambulance 10 minutes and 52 seconds to respond to an urgent call in Coquitlam. Among 22 communities with at least 5,000 ambulance calls in 2020, Coquitlam ranked 20th in urgent response time, ahead of only Delta and Langley.

Part of the challenge of serving the Tri-Cities stems from the decision to move the former Port Moody paramedic station to a site “essentially right beside our other station,” said Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C.

“We have two stations on the grounds of Riverview that respond to essentially the whole Tri-Cities area,” he said.

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A station in north Burnaby used to sometimes dispatch paramedics to Port Moody, Clifford noted. However, that station was closed last summer and moved to central Burnaby, further exacerbating response times.

For comparison 

  • Chilliwack urgent response time: Eight minutes and 55 seconds
  • Victoria urgent response time: Seven minutes and 10 seconds

Within the Tri-Cities

The median response time to urgent calls in Port Coquitlam was 10 minutes and 58 seconds – 28 seconds slower than in 2018.

Response times to urgent calls in Port Moody were 11 minutes and 58 seconds – 20 seconds slower than the median response time in 2018.

Calling the trend “disheartening,” Clifford said the lagging response times are consistent across the Lower Mainland where 25 percent of ambulances are routinely parked due to a paramedic shortage.

“The biggest deterrent is our pay scheme,” Clifford said, noting new recruits earn $2 an hour for being on standby. 

“To sacrifice so much to essentially volunteer is not a realistic option for people.”

Getting slower

In terms of demand, Coquitlam has been consistent with 9,229 calls for paramedics in 2019 and 9,231 calls in 2020. Of those calls, 2,263 were rated life threatening or time critical. That figure represents a slight dip from 2019, when paramedics responded to 2,298 urgent calls in Coquitlam.

Coquitlam’s median response time in 2020 was 38 seconds slower than in 2018. 

For less urgent calls classified as orange (potentially serious but not life threatening), the median response time was 13 minutes and 52 seconds – 44 seconds slower than in 2018. 

The slowing trend also turned up among the lowest priority calls, classified yellow (not serious or life threatening, such as a sprained ankle), where the median response time was 21 minutes and eight seconds. The median response time to low-priority calls was 91 seconds faster in 2018. 

The median response time to orange calls in Port Coquitlam was 13 minutes and 47 seconds – 44 seconds slower than 2018. Lower priority, or yellow calls, were answered in 20 minutes and 36 seconds – 94 seconds slower than 2018.

The response time to orange calls in Port Moody was 15 minutes and 28 seconds – 78 seconds slower than in 2018. Yellow calls were answered in 23 minutes and 20 seconds – 88 seconds slower than in 2018.

The slower response times risk the lives and health of patients. The stress of maintaining service levels with less staff has resulted in: “significant psychological and mental health challenges” for dispatchers and paramedics, Clifford said.

Approximately 25 percent of paramedics are either seeking help for stress management or fatigue or they are off work, Clifford said.

A lack of staff means call volumes piling up and paramedics going from one call to the next without any time to take a breather.

“Somebody’s got to pick up those calls,” Clifford said.

To read the original story published in the Fraser Current or to see more data, click here.

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