'For the sake of our community': Oliver Firefighters have been stepping up to help with the paramedic shortage

Fire crews help medical gap

Casey Richardson

The Oliver Fire Department has been filling in the health care gaps in the community by attending medical first response calls this year due to a shortage of paramedics.

Fire Chief Bob Graham presented town council with a rundown of calls for service since 2018 at the last council meeting in July.

In 2018, the department responded to 187 calls, then a total of 205 calls for service in 2019, 208 calls for service in 2020 and in 2021, there were 303 calls.

There have already been more than 200 calls this year for the first six months of 2022.

According to the monthly fire call report, there were 51 calls alone throughout June, 31 of which were related to medical first response or ambulance assistance.

“Everything has increased this year. Everything is busier, I guess with our population increase. And so we have an increase in the number of calls that we have," Graham said.

The South Okanagan has long been dealing with a health care crisis, as family doctors continue to leave and retire, without replacements coming in and the unattached Patient List is growing.

Graham said that call volume had gone up between 30 to 50 per cent in the Oliver area, with the majority related to the first response program.

“Prior to this year, we did not do first response calls from the fire department,” he added. “We determined that there was a need within the community, because of the staffing problems that ambulances [were] having that there were often times when there was a delay, no fault of the local ambulance, just that's the way the province has set it up.”

Without a fix coming in the near future, the members of the department all decided to go ahead with the change in response.

Now there are members of the fire department who are trained in medical assistance alongside their firefighter training and they're ready to respond to life-threatening or potentially life-threatening calls until an ambulance can arrive.

Graham said the majority of fire departments throughout the province do first responder calls.

“It is sort of a Band-Aid on the problem. And the problem would be alleviated if we had more ambulance cars and more paramedics," he said.

Calls are colour coded by severity, for example, with purple meaning immediate life-threatening while red being potentially life-threatening.

Fire departments are always called for a code purple, and will be called in for a code red if there is going to be an ambulance delay, which Graham said there often is.

“I mean, it's not something that is a benefit to us as firefighters. We're all volunteers. So we leave our homes or we leave our jobs to go and assist people. And that's what firefighters do.”

When a wildfire sparks in the area, the fire department also has to balance fulfilling all their duties alongside the wildland response.

“It's a challenge. And it's something that as a fire chief, it's part of the struggle to make sure that we have enough people to do all the jobs that we are required to do,” Graham said.

“In the long term, we'd like to see more ambulances, obviously, and more paramedics. For now, we're just going to continue to do what we can for the sake of our community.”

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