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"Major breakdown of an essential service"; Nearly 30 ambulance shifts on Bowen expected to be missed in March

Muni says BC Ambulance Service doesn’t always inform them paramedics aren’t available
Ambulance web photo
The Bowen Island Ambulance Station on Miller Road.

Editor's note: This story has been updated from the original version following a response from BCAS

Bowen’s ambulance issues have become far more critical this month after it was discovered dozens of shifts are being left unfilled on the island.

Chief administrative officer (CAO) Liam Edwards told council Monday night BC Ambulance Service (BCAS) doesn't expect to fill at least 28 shifts during March. There’s been eight days without service so far this year, including four the first half of this month. 

And Edwards said this information didn’t come willingly from BCAS, but rather through investigating by the local fire department. The CAO says fire chief Aaron Hanen heard from a source there would be eight unscheduled shifts in March. When Hanen contacted BCAS to confirm, he learned the actual total was expected to be 28.

“That was us having to reach out to them, and us hearing about it through other means,” says Edwards. He adds while BCAS technically does give advance notification most of the time, “it’s usually the night before or the day before.”

“This is an extremely serious situation,” says mayor Gary Ander. “Not only are they not giving us service, but they’re not notifying us that they’re not giving us service.”

Edwards says after just one day without full service in February, there was a hope the problem was near resolution. But the March numbers have left Bowen with less service than ever since BCAS adopted its new scheduling policies last fall.

The communication breakdown echoes one of the key problems between the municipality and BCAS from earlier in the year. It was only discovered there were missing shifts at all after Hanen enquired with BCAS after becoming aware of noticeable gaps in paramedic service. Edwards adds Galiano Island has reached out to Bowen and expressed they’re dealing with the same service problems.

Again on Monday, Edwards said communication from BCAS has been less than forthcoming. “It’s not the municipality’s job or responsibility to inform the public about this disruption in service… the ambulance service needs to figure out a better way to communicate,” he says.

BCAS says they continue to actively recruit for two full-time vacancies and are encouraging paramedics already working in BC and elsewhere to apply.

"When we have upcoming open shifts, we make every effort to schedule coverage before the shift occurs. As we work on recruiting new staff, we greatly appreciate the help of the fire department and their assistance with emergency responses when the Bowen Island ambulance is not fully staffed," says Lesley Pritchard with BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) communications in an email to the Undercurrent.

"When possible, we move one of the two ambulances based in Lions Bay to Bowen Island to provide coverage if the Bowen Island ambulance is not fully staffed," says Pritchard.

After hearing the news, council resolved to write a second, more urgent letter to BCAS, as the letter penned at the start of the year hasn’t resolved the issue.

“I’m just outraged that this is going on again, I thought we had it settled with them,” says Ander. 

Councillors expressed the same sentiment. “I think this is outrageous. The lack of service over that many days, and not notifying. And it’s up to them to solve it. It’s up to us to help push,” says Coun. Maureen Nicholson.

“I work at a community centre where I deal with a lot of emergencies. And even one day having that insecurity that it isn’t on-island, that is really concerning,” says Coun. Rob Wynen, pointing out that in medical emergencies such as strokes, minutes can be the difference in preventing permanent injuries or even death.

Council also resolved to demand a meeting with BCAS to have them explain the situation further. Chief ambulance officer Leanne Heppell of BCEHS, which manages BCAS, responded to council with a letter last month saying the agency is "working hard to fill all vacancies and have a national recruitment campaign underway as well." 

Alternatives to weather the service gaps were brainstormed during the meeting, including a dedicated local paramedic unit, or scrapping BCAS altogether and using the money to train the fire department to assume Bowen’s medical emergency duties.

But Coun. Michael Kaile says the current focus should be entirely on restoring full-time ambulance service. “We have a major breakdown of an essential service, an essential service requiring qualified people 24/7. So anything else dilutes the conversation.”

“I think our focus is repairing something that is horribly broken, and not allow our conversations to go in a different direction and deviate from what we have to get done. Which is simply, putting this service back at a level at which we need, and frankly… have every right to expect,” says Kaile.  

The fire department is currently attending all emergency calls taking place while BCAS paramedics are unavailable. If a patient needs transportation to hospital on the mainland they’ll need to be transported to the ferry or Bowen Responder, operated by Cormorant Marine. For severe injuries or emergencies there is also the option of the BCAS helicopter ambulance.