I am hearing more and more on the media about slow ambulance response times. “Paramedics are just taking too long to get there” is the claim being made by media, politicians and other emergency responders. So what’s going on, are our paramedics just spending too much time at the coffee shops or taking their responsibilities too lightly? Well nothing could be further from the truth! I have friends who remain in the service and I know first hand that the people most distressed by the response time issue are the paramedics themselves.
I started with BC Ambulance back in the early 80’s. In those days BC Ambulance was one of the best, and we had visitors from other countries who were modelling their own services after what we had in British Columbia. BC Ambulance was one of the best in the field of emergency medical services, we really were a flagship in the field of EMS!
In those days it wasn’t unusual to do 4..5..6.. calls in a day or evening shift. You often returned to the station at the end of each call to await the next one, much like life in the fire service. The bell would ring and in seconds you were on the way to someone in need. When you were at the station you could have a meal, do paperwork, restock equipment or study for your next recertification. For the long 14 hour night shifts we had bedrooms much like a fire hall, sleep was often interrupted a few times during the night by emergency calls but you usually returned to the station between calls. It wasn’t restful like sleeping at home but it ensured that crews were fresh and ready to respond to whatever new disaster awaited them when the hotline rang.
Since that time the lower mainland population has more than doubled, unfortunately the Ambulance Service has not kept pace. Despite the drastic increase in population and emergency calls, the number of paramedics and ambulance stations in the lower mainland has changed very little over the years. Today many crews have their first call waiting when the arrive at the station and they seldom get back until shift change 10, 12 or 14 hours later. Calls are stacked like cord wood waiting for crews to clear, all the while hospitals, struggling with staffing and bed space, have crews babysitting patients in the hallways until they can be freed. Meanwhile the calls continue to roll in, with dispatch struggling to find units able to respond. When the paramedics are finally released from the current patient, they get back to the ambulance only to find their next call already waiting for them.
There are so many requests for help, that a call to 911 means you may or may not get an ambulance right away. At any moment in time there are more calls for assistance than there are ambulances. A paramedic crew will often find themselves as the only available unit in a very large area. At one moment in time a call comes in for a cardiac arrest in an apartment several minutes away. Simultaneously there is a child who has fallen at a nearby school and may have a broken leg and another call comes in from a care home with an elderly resident who is “seriously ill”. The priority call assignment sends the crew to the more critical call, in this case the cardiac arrest. Meanwhile the others just have to wait until another crew can be freed up. In the interim the patients and those with them sit waiting, fuming and getting angry with the paramedics who they feel are just being too slow. When a tired and frustrated crew finally does arrive for the other “lower priority patients” the paramedics are bombarded with “What took you so long … you’re too slow … we called you over 30 minutes ago!!”
Dealing with frustration and angry people is only the tip of the iceberg. Even basic essentials like meal and rest breaks for paramedics are a thing of the past. Someone commented to me recently … “Hey what about the Canada Labour Code that specifies break and rest periods for workers?” Sorry folks, that doesn’t apply to emergency services. For many paramedics today, lunch is the bag of Cheetos from the vending machine in the ER lobby as you raced out the door. You try to wolf those down in a couple minutes as you are on route to the next call. Even getting a bathroom break has become a serious issue for stressed paramedics who are being pushed harder and harder to clear from one call and get onto the next without delay.
In the end folks when you call 911 and it takes “too long” for help to get to you … please realize the paramedics are feeling the frustration every bit as much as you do! Instead of venting your anger at them, remember they are doing their very best and are giving everything they have plus more for their patients! Perhaps you should be directing your anger at the politicians in Victoria!