As residents across much of B.C. battled blistering heat wave, the situation for the paramedics and dispatchers trying to help was described in one word by the head of their union: “unbearable.”
Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., said that conditions since Friday have been the worst that first responders have ever worked through.
“We’re seeing some of the highest call volumes and calls for ambulances that we’ve ever seen,” Clifford said.
The province’s health minister said on Monday that call volumes to dispatchers surged over the weekend, with 1,833 on Friday and 1,850 on Saturday, the first two days of the heat wave. Those were record numbers in B.C., beating prior ones set during New Year’s Eve celebrations in pre-pandemic times.
A report released Wednesday afternoon from the BC Coroners’ Service put the preliminary death toll at 486 between Friday and this afternoon.
“The 486 deaths currently entered represent a 195 per cent increase over the approximately 165 deaths that would normally occur in the province over a five-day period,” chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a statement.
“While it is too early to say with certainty how many of these deaths are heat related, it is believed likely that the significant increase in deaths reported is attributable to the extreme weather B.C. has experienced and continues to impact many parts of our province.”
Across social media, both paramedics and people waiting for help vented their grief and frustration, with many of the latter reporting waits of two hours or longer for emergency help.
“I think the stuff that you’re seeing on social media is indicative of the frustration and the exhaustion of paramedic there, they’re speaking out because they’re frustrated, they’re tired, and they don’t see action by their employer to address the shortfalls in staffing,” Clifford said.
“We’re in a really tough situation.”
Many of the issues that compounded that deadly situation existed before the heat wave, he added, noting that B.C. Emergency Health Services – the provincial body in charge of paramedics and dispatchers – needs to bring on more staff.
“We need action, we need to all hands on deck, they need to pay paramedics properly, so that you can entice them in manage their wellness and make them feel supported.”
In a statement, BCEHS said that they are “continuously monitoring staffing levels and making daily adjustments as needed. BCEHS is also implementing staffing model changes and adding more than 500 permanent positions throughout the province this year to enhance staffing.”
Clifford said that wages are a big issue.
“Seventy-five per cent of the province relies on an on-call model, with is a $2 stipend you receive when you’re waiting for a call in your community,” he said, adding that these rural positions are the organization’s main intake for new paramedics.
“And what’s happening is that it’s hard to entice people into it with when you don’t offer meaningful wages and benefits.”
That issue isn’t hitting Metro Vancouver alone, he added; paramedics in resort communities like Revelstoke, Whistler and Fernie are also seeing cost of living increase while on-call wages remain stagnant.
Without that, Clifford said, the shortages will continue – shortages that he says saw some ambulances sitting empty this weekend while paramedics were rushing from call to call.
“Over the last couple of days, we’ve had over 200 ambulance calls waiting for ambulances to become available to be dispatched,” he said.”Those are people waiting for in their time of need, whether it’s a emergency or a non emergency call, it’s still extended periods of time that people are not getting help in a timely fashion.”
And that’s led to extreme stress and burnout for paramedics and dispatchers already exhausted by more than a year of pandemic deaths.
“I am very concerned and it’s a very real, real impact,” Clifford said.
“It’s causing incredible pressure on the paramedics and dispatchers from a psychological wellness perspective,” he added, never mind the physical fatigue of back-to-back calls during a heat wave.
But while paramedics and dispatchers may have been overwhelmed, Clifford doesn’t want British Columbians to avoid calling 911 if they need emergency help.
“We’d rather come and not be needed than then to have a situation where somebody is needed and didn’t call because they were worried we’re too busy or didn’t want to bother people,” he said.
“We don’t tend to judge what people’s emergency is. I mean, our standard is that, if in doubt, you call for help.”
But he does encourage people to take advantage of other resources, including calling 811 if they’re concerned.
With the summer only getting started, paramedics will remain busy. Whether British Columbians are out hiking, boating or doing any sort of outdoor activities, Clifford is asking that people to “just be safe” and to check on those who may need help.
“They’ve been shut in for a long time. I think that we need to make sure that we’re checking in on the people that may not have the support or the necessities to look after themselves.”