Bowen Island no longer has 24-hour ambulance coverage following policy changes by B.C. Ambulance Services.
And this has been the case for several weeks. Fire chief Aaron Hanen raised the issue earlier this month after learning of significant gaps in ambulance service since December, sometimes up to eight hours at a time. An inquiry by Hanen revealed the issue was due to new workplace policies by the provincial outfit.
BCAS says in the fall they introduced a new staffing model “that brought new permanent paramedic jobs to Bowen Island. These positions provide regular paramedic jobs with employer benefits and set hours so we can move towards being less reliant on on-call employees to provide more stable, consistent coverage.
“In addition to these changes, new scheduling measures were introduced to avoid severe fatigue for paramedics to ensure the safety of paramedics and the safe care of patients. These measures were enacted as part of the collective agreement with the Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers Association of BC,” says B.C. Emergency Health Services communications officer Jane Campbell.
According to Bowen Island Municipality (BIM), they only found out about the changes through Hanen – who himself discovered it inadvertently. BIM says BCAS’ silence on the matter has left the majority of residents unaware of the problem. “This lack of communication puts Bowen Island residents at risk, especially those dealing with chronic conditions or potentially emergent situations, such as childbirth or serious motor vehicle accidents,” says Christie Stashyn, emergency program coordinator.
“At the very least, the community needs to be informed about the service disruptions in order to prepare a backup plan to ensure the health and safety of themselves and their families,” she says.
The backup plans at the moment are few. Hanen was told patients in serious need may need to be transported to mainland hospitals by the fire department or even private vehicles. There have already been multiple instances of patients waiting for ambulance service from Squamish or Lions Bay. BCAS says in extreme circumstances they would send an ambulance helicopter over.
Chief administrative officer Liam Edwards says Hanen’s team would handle calls if nobody else was available but “it’s a very tall request to ask a volunteer fire department to fill in the gap for the ambulance service… This shift in staffing procedures is really having a negative impact on us.”
Edwards says the scheduling changes may be well-intentioned, and can work “quite well in more populated centres and in regions where you have neighbouring communities that you can borrow an ambulance crew if your crew is off.
It does not work well for islands or rural or remote communities.”
He says he’s talked to fellow CAO’s in other B.C. island and coastal communities who have experienced similar gaps in ambulance service.
BCAS says they’re working to address the staff shortages on Bowen. “We are actively pursuing a number of different avenues to recruit for the new positions on Bowen Island including a nation-wide recruitment campaign to attract paramedics from across the country, along with new individuals to the service,” says Campbell.
“In the meantime, current staff members, including two who have recently returned to the station, are supporting local coverage,” she says.
Until this takes place the municipality determined their next step would be to craft a petition to Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix, and local MLA Jordan Sturdy to reinstate round-the-clock ambulance coverage on Bowen Island, and to improve communication between the municipality and emergency services.
“It’s really unfortunate that it’s falling on us to do their job here,” says Edwards, and that BIM will be “communicating back to the ambulance service that it’s their job to communicate to the community.”
“I think it’s shocking that there was no official notice that came out and I think we were probably left just hanging for awhile too. And there could have been very serious circumstances,” added Mayor Gary Ander.
Campbell says BCAS is "in contact with Bowen Island Municipality about this matter and would be happy to meet with them further on it."