Ambulances are taking longer to get to low-priority calls but officials say it's allowed faster response to critically urgent calls.

Long ambulance waits for low-priority calls under fire

'Safer' service shift defended as equivalent of triage of hospital ER resources

B.C. firefighters say a downgrade in response priority for less urgent medical calls by the B.C. Ambulance Service has resulted in much longer waits for paramedics to arrive.

A reallocation of ambulance service last fall shifted dozens of call types – often for broken bones and other incidents where the patient is medically stable – so that those ambulances now roll at posted speed limits without lights and siren, rather than code 3 at high speed.

Officials say it’s meant an average of six minutes slower arrival times to those calls, but allowed one minute faster average responses to urgent life-or-death emergencies like heart attacks, while reducing the risk of high-speed crashes between ambulances and other vehicles.

B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association president Mike Hurley said that doesn’t match what fire department first responders are seeing.

“Our experience in the field is it’s anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes and longer for an ambulance to show up,” Hurley said of the downgraded calls.

“They’ve lessened the service to the citizens of each community.”

He said the types of calls that are now dispatched at routine speeds include serious falls, serious hemorrhages and certain pregnancy calls.

They make up about nine per cent of overall ambulance calls, according to a report on the reallocation plan, and mean 800,000 fewer kilometres of lights-and-siren driving each year.

Dr. William Dick, vice-president of medical programs at B.C. Emergency Health Services, said the changes flow from a rigorous two-year expert review that assessed outcomes for patients and the risks of high-speed ambulance driving.

“It’s safer to the driving public, it’s safer for our paramedics and it’s safer for our patients,” Dick said Wednesday.

He likened the change to hospital triage policies that give the most urgent cases priority ahead of patients who can safely wait longer.

“We’re doing the same thing they’re doing in the emergency department but we’re doing it on the street or in people’s homes.”

Dick said a rolling analysis of the changes has so far found no change in medical outcomes for patients whose call priority was reduced.

Several fire departments and municipalities have criticized the change.

A report by the Vancouver Fire Department estimates ambulance response times there are an average of 21 minutes slower and Burnaby has also reported a jump in long ambulance waits.

Dick said he believes reports of extreme waits are anomalies and none of the cases involve people in medical danger.

Several Metro Vancouver mayors say the service change amounts to downloading of costs by the province because firefighters who respond first end up waiting longer with patients, sometimes incurring more overtime as well.

“They are reducing quality of service,” Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said. “Sometimes the patient’s family has driven someone to the hospital, which is just not appropriate.”

BCEHS maintains the changes are not a money-saving measure but are strictly to improve care by speeding response to those in most urgent need.

And it contends municipalities could make smarter use of their own resources by redeploying firefighters to other services if they didn’t opt to dispatch them to routine calls where first responders aren’t medically required.

Mike McNamara, president of the Surrey Firefighters Association, said firefighters fear fire halls won’t get dispatched to the calls deemed less urgent at all in the future, leaving patients to wait longer without aid.

“One crew waited over 45 minutes for a lady that fell and broke her hip,” he said, recounting one recent incident of ambulance delay in Surrey.

Of particular concern, he said, are cases when a panicked 911 caller gives unclear information that results in an ambulance being dispatched at low priority to a call that proves more urgent.

“There is room for error there,” McNamara said.

Because there are many more fire halls than ambulance stations, fire departments maintain they’re uniquely placed to act as first responders with quicker response times.

“What happens when [dispatchers] get it wrong?” McNamara asked. “We’re just down the street and it’s a real emergency. We’re just minutes away from helping this person and we’re not going.”

Dick said BCEHS is consulting cities on the changes and promised a further review of the results.

He said there are no plans to exclude fire halls from low priority calls if the local city still wants its firefighters to respond to provide “comfort care” while awaiting an ambulance.

“I will not arbitrarily cut anyone off,” Dick said. “I question the wisdom of spending a really expensive resource when it’s not required medically. But it’s not my decision to make.”

– with files from Diane Strandberg

Just Posted

UPDATED: Condolences pour forth from community after passing of Langley-Aldergrove MP Mark Warawa

The Conservative Member of Parliament and long-time community advocate died in hospice this morning

Langley Thunder fall to Burnaby in Western Lacrosse Association play

Bad days for Junior and Tier 1 Thunder teams, too

Calling it a season: Langley Olympians Swim Club hosts intra club meet

Three swimmers achieved provincial qualifying times

VIDEO: Second Giant named in NHL Draft, both selected by Colorado Avalanche

Goalie Trent Miner has joined defenceman Bowen Byram in being drafted by the same NHL team

Five Langley elementary school students taken to hospital after encounter with vaping device

School district said students were taken to hospital ‘out of an abundance of caution’

Air Canada reviewing how crew left sleeping passenger on parked plane

In a Facebook post, the woman said she woke up ‘all alone’ on a ‘cold dark’ aircraft

Man presumed dead after boat capsizes in Columbia River

Search and rescue efforts recovered a life jacket

Crews fight wildfire along Sea-to-Sky Highway

A cause has not been determined, although a downed power line is suspected

PHOTOS: Event marks one year since soccer team rescued from Thai cave

Nine players and coach took part in marathon and bike event to help improve conditions at cave

Rock climber dies after fall at Stawamus Chief in Squamish

The man had fallen about 30 metres while climbing in the Grand Wall area

Being a pot dealer is not what it used to be

Sunday Big Read: the business of selling marijuana in B.C. is a slow bureaucratic slog

B.C. couple who has raised 58 children turns to community amid cancer diagnosis

Family who raised, fostered and adopted many kids hoping to gain some precious together time to fight cancer

Canucks acquire forward J.T. Miller from Lightning

J.T. Miller, 26, had 13 goals and 34 assists for the Lightning last season

Most Read