‘A complete collapse’: B.C. paramedic, dispatcher detail weekend of heat-emergency chaos

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – B.C. paramedics and ambulance dispatchers say last weekend’s heatwave emergencies response was a complete system collapse, with some people left waiting for hours for an ambulance, while others never got to see one arrive.

Luca, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, works as an ambulance dispatcher on the Lower Mainland. He says once the temperature started to rise, call volumes skyrocketed. E-Comm confirms it was a record-breaking weekend for 911 calls.

“The last 48 hours, the volume has been on almost the same level as a major disaster,” he said, explaining many were for heat-related problems or from friends and family checking up on loved ones and finding them disoriented or unconscious. “We had, over a 24-hour period or 36-hour period, well over 3,600 calls, when we would normally answer maybe 1,200 to 1,400 on a busy night.”

He says despite ample warning of oncoming record temperatures, he didn’t see any additional ambulances on the road.

“The ambulance service didn’t seem to do anything to prepare for it at all,” he said. “There was no initial attempts to top up staff, call-takers, or dispatchers. That’s why we ended up with effectively this collapse of last few days.”

“It was a complete collapse” – B.C. paramedic

Alex, whose name has also been changed, has been a paramedic in B.C. for more than two decades. He was working in the Fraser Valley over the weekend and says he’s never seen such a lack of organization and planning on the part of BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS).

“I didn’t see any changes over normal operations,” he said, adding the most communication he received was an email with information about the heat warning issued by Environment Canada.

Some off-duty units such as supervisors were handing out cool drinks, but beyond that, Alex says there didn’t appear to be a plan.

He says ambulances sat at hospitals as paramedics waited for their patients to be admitted, taking much-needed resources off the streets. He recalls one person who had to wait six hours in pain on their floor.

“Even emergency or imminently life-threatening calls were holding for, three, four, five, six hours… The longest one I saw last night was worse than I think 11 hours,” Alex said.

Between Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley, there were hundreds of calls still waiting for an ambulance, come Monday morning, with Luca saying he lost count of how many times a call sat in the queue, only to end with paramedics arriving to a sudden death.

“By the time we get an ambulance crew, there was quite a number of times where the person had already gone into cardiac arrest and ultimately passed away before we could do anything. Those are the those are definitely the hardest ones to see there,” he said. “We were getting so desperate, we were asking police and fire departments to attend for us in the meantime. As a dispatcher, it’s devastating seeing these calls hold when these elderly patients. They just need help to cool down or to get to the hospital.”

Vancouver police say officers have responded to a total of 98 sudden deaths since Friday, many of which are suspected to be heat-related. On Tuesday, Chief Coroner Lisa LaPointe said about 100 more people died than usual between Friday and Monday, as temperatures rose into the 40s. She expected the number to climb.

The same day, Burnaby RCMP said officers responded to more than 30 deaths since Monday, many of them seniors. Surrey responded to 22 deaths on Monday and more than a dozen on Tuesday. There were nine sudden deaths in a 24-hour period in Delta.

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“I didn’t see any managers at any of the hospitals, I mean it was truly an emergency situation. So I don’t know whether they prepared,” Alex said. “The ambulance services is running pretty much at capacity, I mean, on a regular day we’re stretched… So when you add an emergency on top of regular operations, the system isn’t capable of handling it… It was a complete collapse.”

Many other first responder agencies activated their Emergency Operations Centres, according to Luca, but BCEHS refused to do so, despite pleas from several frontline managers and medical officers. He says doing so would have opened additional resources for setting up things like cooling stations and coordinating with partner agencies and hospitals, but the centre wasn’t activated until well into the next morning.

To make matters worse, Luca says the air conditioning in the Vancouver dispatch centre apparently cut out.

“They had to end up trying to find fans and stuff like that just to keep the centre cool. Yeah, no. No preparation of scenes whatsoever.”

Premier says province did all it could to warn people

On Monday Premier John Horgan said his government did all it could to “cut through the noise” and warn people about the dangers of the oncoming heat, but Alex questions whether the province could have done more to help frontline healthcare workers.

Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC has long been trying to bring attention to the understaffing among its members. On Monday, Troy Clifford with the union said several of their vehicles were out of service over the weekend due to staffing levels.

“They were just run ragged. They really looked exhausted,” he said, describing his visit to Burnaby General Hospital to speak with paramedics.

Back in March, Clifford told NEWS 1130 there were 32 ambulances out of service in one evening due to staffing. At that time, BC Emergency Health Services admitted about 11 per cent of the vehicles were sidelined on a Saturday in Vancouver.

Vancouver Coastal health said there will be a “rethink” based on last weekend’s record number of emergency room visits. A representative says a surge system was activated to bring in additional doctors and staff, but there was still limited capacity to prepare for the rush.

BCEHS claims it did work proactively to prepare for the heatwave.

“Ahead of last weekend, on the dispatch side, BCEHS worked closely with our partners in ECOMM and put additional processes in place for expected higher volumes,” reads a statement from the agency. “We also worked with ECOMM to share public safety and education messages around when to call 911 for a medical emergency and when to call 811 for medical advice.”

The agency says it also brought in more experts to triage lower acuity calls and sent information to staff around safety while working in extreme heat.

“We have been actively monitoring staff levels and filling shift vacancies, including increasing staffing and triage capacity in our dispatch centres and out on the street,” the statement reads.

Luca, however, says he hasn’t seen any meaningful changes. He says BCEHS cancelled its education departments and brought those workers back on the floor, but that only added five or six extra call-takers.

Alex points to major events such as the Stanley Cup Riots and the annual Celebration of Light fireworks where additional ambulances are staffed to account for an expected jump in calls. However, he says there is one major step the province and BCEHS must take first.

“In order to solve the problem, they need to acknowledge that there’s a problem,” Alex said. “I think until they do that, we’re not going to go anywhere. They spin the narrative that there’s no problem, that we have a spike in call volume… They need to admit that yes there’s a problem, and what steps can we do to address it.”

-With files from Monika Gul and Martin MacMahon

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