‘It’s a broken system that needs fixing,’ say emergency responders of B.C.’s rural paramedic shortages

Rural communities rely on low-paying on-call models that fail to attract applicants. On Quadra Island 3 of 4 positions are vacant

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On 11 days this summer and early fall, Quadra Island had no local paramedics available for emergencies, figures from the emergency responders’ union shows.

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The ferry-dependent community of 2,700 residents has acute staff shortages, as do many rural communities in B.C. On Quadra, three of the four permanent part-time paramedic positions are vacant, Cindy Leong, a spokesperson for B.C. Emergency Health Services, said in an email.

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There is one ambulance on Quadra and it takes two paramedics to staff it — one to drive, the other to care for a patient. But Health Services has been relying on the volunteer fire department to provide a driver when no staff or only a single paramedic is available.

Volunteer firefighters were called out 18 times to drive the ambulance from May 1 to mid-October — to assist a single paramedic or pick up a Campbell River ambulance crew arriving by water taxi, union statistics showed. The union provided specific dates, staffing level gaps and the number of times the firefighters drove ambulances.

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The numbers reflect rough estimates by the island’s fire department, said Quadra Fire Chief Sharon Clandening, who said Quadra was left without any paramedics seven times in the months of June and July alone.

B.C. EHS statistics were lower, noting only three instances between May 1 and Sept. 6 when no paramedics were available locally, Leong said. However, Leong did not supply exact dates.

Clandening said any time the island is left with no local paramedics, response times go up, putting people’s safety at risk.

“It’s a broken system that needs to be fixed,” Clandening said.

The concern is greatest at night when the ferry doesn’t run and people have to wait for air transport or for Campbell River paramedics to arrive by boat, which can take up to three hours, she said.

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Serious gaps in ambulance service are likely to continue in rural and remote communities such as Quadra if the province continues to use its scheduled on-call staffing model, said Stuart Myers, the union’s regional vice-president.

The staffing system developed for rural and remote communities in 2019 makes it extremely difficult to attract staff, Myers said.

Under the system, paramedics are scheduled to work an eight-hour shift, but must remain on call for a further 16 hours — for a total of 24 hours daily over a three-day rotation.

While on call, paramedics only receive $2 an hour. The net effect is they are tied up for a full three days but are paid full wages for only one, unless they respond to an emergency while on call.

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“We’ve seen a (negative) change in staffing levels since implementation of the SOC model,” Myers said, adding the province needs to provide regular full-time work and pay competitive wages.

No one from the Emergency Health Services has been made available for an interview despite several requests starting in May.

There are six casual on-call paramedics on Quadra who assist in staffing the island’s ambulance, and Campbell River paramedics provide coverage when local staff are unavailable, Leong said in an email.

On-call paramedics, who typically have other steady jobs, aren’t always available to cover staff shortages, Myers said.

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Emergency Health Services is making every effort to recruit for open positions, Leong said.

Paramedics are currently bargaining with the province now that their collective agreement is up, said union president Troy Clifford.

The scheduled on-call staffing model and a 30 per cent plus disparity in wages between paramedics and other first responders such as police and professional firefighters are central negotiation topics, Clifford said.

“We’ve notified the employer that we expect, because it hasn’t met objectives, that (scheduled on-call) SOC should be phased out,” Clifford said. “We’ll be looking for a new model that’s more compensation-based and meets the needs of those communities.”

The province typically justifies the scheduled on-call model in rural communities — instead of full-time staffing for the 24/7 coverage provided in urban areas — because of low call volumes, Myers said.

“But you know, the question for me has always been, why don’t the people of Quadra deserve that same level of care?”

Rochelle Baker is a report for Canada’s National Observer

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