Demand for ambulance service in the Central Okanagan may be growing but that has not stopped the B.C. Emergency Health Services from reducing service in Kelowna.
Last week, in an unannounced move, the service quietly cut the number of ambulances available in the city to seven from 10. And that is expected to have an even greater ripple effect on the entire region says the union that represents ambulance paramedics in B.C.
“This is a big issue,” said Troy Clifford, provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C.
He said Kelowna is not alone in losing ambulance service in the province and given that ambulances from outlying areas are used to help meet demand in larger centres, service in the smaller surrounding communities, like Lake Country, West Kelowna and Peachland will also be adversely affected.
The three ambulances cut were added in 2019 as part-time resources, part of the province’s plan to add more ambulance service to rural, remote and indigenous communities. But an agreement in September between BCEHS and the paramedics union made 25 of the 55 ambulances added in 2019 full-time. Some of the areas that benefitted were Penticton, Salmon Arm, Oliver, Ashcroft, Chase and Merritt.
Clifford said a second set of negotiations to try and make the remaining 30 ambulances added in 2019 full time—some in larger communities like Kelowna and Kamloops—was to have taken place in October. But he said BCEHS “did nothing.”
“We have been asking for weeks about this,” he said.
Keith Taylor, chief of the Lake Country ambulance station and a member of the union executive, said area paramedics found out about the Kelowna cut when staffing for the three ambulances was not scheduled for November.
Castanet reached out to BCEHS for comment and was initially told a response would be made Thursday, but as of late Friday no explanation for the cuts was received.
According to figures released by the ambulance service on its website, call volumes in Kelowna rose steadily from 19,752 calls in 2018 to 20,012 calls in 2020, and then spiked to 23,505 in 2021. Taylor said on average, call volumes increase by 6% each year in each community in B.C.
He said the ripple effect of cuts like those in Kelowna does not just affect service to the public but also has an impact on paramedics. They are not only concerned about not being able to respond in a timely manner but also about the fact that in order to cover other areas that need ambulance service, their own communities are often left without adequate coverage.
“We are seeing a lot of mental health issues with our members as a result of that.”
Taylor gave a recent local example, where a single ambulance crew was dispatched to 17 different “events” during a 12-hour shift but was only able to get to 12 of them. In another instance, firefighters, acting as first responders, had to wait for more than an hour with a patient—a teenager who was clipped by a passing vehicle while riding his bicycle—for an ambulance to arrive.
“We are stretched way too thin when it comes to resources,” said Taylor.
Clifford said with growing demand and the public already having to wait longer for ambulances to arrive, he fears waits may get longer and in some cases ambulances may not arrive at all leading to "tragic" outcomes.
In addition to ambulances stationed in outlying communities, such as West Kelowna, Peachland and Lake Country used to fill in if needed in Kelowna, patient transfer between hospitals in Penticton, Vernon and the Kootenays is another issue. Those assignments take ambulances out of their own communities for long periods during the day. Taylor wants to see dedicated patient transfer ambulances here.
Paramedic recruitment and retention are also significant issues right now, according to Clifford, but he hopes a recent change to the payment model for on-call paramedics, substantially increasing their hourly rate, will help.
In the case of Kelowna, the ambulances cut from service were staffed by on-call paramedics who worked full-time shifts.
The union estimates another 1,000 paramedics are needed across B.C. just to meet current demand. There are currently 4,500 paramedics in the BCAS.
"What's happening now is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “It’s a dire situation and there is a need for more full-time resources.”