B.C. shakes up ambulance service after heat wave meltdown

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By: Lisa Cordasco

VICTORIA — Health Minister Adrian Dix has installed new leaders at the agency responsible for paramedics and ambulances in British Columbia.

B.C. Emergency Health Services had been under fire for slow ambulance response times for months. That criticism was redoubled after the agency’s handling of the heat-wave crisis earlier this month that left up to 500 people dead, including some who died after waiting for many hours for an ambulance.

On Wednesday, Dix said the province is reconstituting the board of directors of B.C. Emergency Health Services to focus solely on ambulance services. Former Vancouver police chief Jim Chu was named the board’s new chair. Telus CEO Darren Entwistle was named a special adviser to the board.

“The board will be directly accountable to me,” said Dix, “with a clear mandate to ensure better service for patients and families who rely on the service and better supports for workers who deliver the service.”

Dix also named Leanne Heppell, the chief operating officer at Providence Health Care, as B.C.’s chief ambulance officer on an interim basis. Heppell becomes the top decision-maker at the BCEHS and is specifically responsible for day-to-day management of the B.C. Ambulance Service, with that responsibility removed from the chief operating officer at BCEHS, who had been criticized by name in an online petition.

“Heppel’s role is to focus solely on ambulance service, working shoulder to shoulder with paramedics and dispatchers to deliver the best ambulance service in the world, that provides the highest level of service for those who need help and the strongest support for those who deliver it,” said Dix.

The province is also acting immediately to reinforce ambulance operations by providing money to hire 85 new full-time paramedics, 30 full-time dispatchers and add 22 new ambulances.

The BCEHS will also be converting 22 part-time rural ambulance stations to full-time, fully staffed stations to enhance ambulance coverage in rural communities, with six scheduled to be converted by October.

There are also plans for up to 16 more stations in B.C. to be added by October.

The president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. said he’s encouraged by the changes.

“The minister has put a structure in place that will allow us to move forward with change that is desperately needed and he’s laid out some clear expectations about what he wants to see happen, along with the public’s expectation for an ambulance service, and that was powerful for me,” said Troy Clifford.

Clifford said he will be meeting with Heppel on Thursday.

“We’re going to roll up our sleeves and get to work immediately on what we need to do so that no one has to wait for an ambulance in their time of need,” he said.

“To get paramedics and ambulances back on the road to respond to patient calls more quickly, the province is directing health authorities to add additional staff to receive patients and care for them when they arrive at emergency departments,” Dix said. Paramedics often get stuck at hospitals until emergency room staff can formally receive a patient.

The stressful conditions faced by ambulance paramedics and dispatchers has led to 25 per cent of them being off the job due to PTSD and stress leave, according to the union. Dix announced a mental health and wellness team will be hired to assist front line workers.

“I know our emergency services staff are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, whether it’s helping people with COVID-19, the toxic drug supply crisis or the heat-wave,” said Dix. “It’s time for us to do a better job in supporting and caring for them.”

Dix pledged to work to make the B.C. ambulance service “the best in the world.”

Clifford said that with the changes announced Wednesday, that’s doable.

“Are there some shortfalls there that need more work? Yes there are, but the minister acknowledged that,” said Clifford. “We have to work together to address the other challenges, and he expects us to do that.”

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