Changes to ambulance service in Central Saanich have invited competing interpretations.
According to BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS), the changes will improve emergency response coverage and create a more stable paramedic workforce. The head of the union representing ambulance paramedics fears that they will leave Central Saanich behind.
Stations in Central Saanich and Sidney (along with communities across Vancouver Island) are among the first to adopt the schedule-on-call (SOC) system as part of the new labour agreement covering 2019 through 2022.
It phases out all ambulances staffed according to the call-out (or fox) shift. It requires paramedics to remain at the station during their whole shift (unless out on a call) and respond within 90 seconds. The hourly wage for paramedics on call-out is $15 per hour.
Central Saanich is losing its fox ambulance for night coverage, leaving two on-call crews in place for the period between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. to staff two ambulances.
Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics Of BC, called it unacceptable against the backdrop of community needs.
“Our position is that this is not an enhancement of services in Central Saanich and consistent with providing high-level access to paramedics and the care they provide for treating and transporting,” he said.
On-call paramedics receive a $2-per-hour stipend while required to carry a pager in their communities, then receive their regular wage if on duty.
BCEHS communications officer Shannon Miller confirmed the elimination of fox ambulances across Vancouver Island and eventually all of British Columbia – saying they are making way for a system to create more permanent, regular paramedic positions.
“BCEHS expects to create at least 170 new paramedic positions through the SOC model,” she said. More than 80 new paramedic positions have been posted on Vancouver Island, she added.
In Central Saanich, the changes add up to two full-time positions, doubling the current number.
This figure means the community will have “four full-time paramedic positions with 24-hour, seven-days-a week coverage” for the first time in this history, said Miller. Staffing at Central Saanich includes 26 paramedics.
Changes are also coming to Sidney, where the number of full-time paramedics is doubling to eight, according to Miller. The Sidney station has four ambulances and 27 paramedics.
“This, by every standard, is an increase in service to the communities,” she said.
Clifford disagrees. “Our position is both communities (Central Saanich and Sidney) should require 24-hour immediate full-time ambulance coverage and we are actually at a loss as to why they chose to do that in Central Saanich other than for maybe budgetary reasons.”
Miller said Central Saanich has never had full-time staffing at night. “By full-time staffing I mean paramedics at the station being paid full-time regular paramedic wages, ready to respond to any 911 medical emergency,” she said.
When asked about claims by Clifford that BCEHS had made decisions without consultation and evidence, Miller said BCEHS considered the data, including time, nature and duration of calls.
“If you are asking if operationally full-time paramedics are required at night in Central Saanich, then that is a matter of station call volume and surrounding community resources (such Sidney and Victoria),” she said. “So the analysis done at the Central Saanich station did not indicate a change required for night coverage.”
Clifford acknowledged the new full-time positions on Vancouver Island.
“If that is consistent with the roll out in the rest of the province, we are going to see some really enhanced ambulance services from a full-time perspective. But that is not going to address some of our challenges with recruitment and filling those spots.” They include the Lower Mainland as well as rural and remote communities.
He also promised to keep BCEHS accountable as the changes roll out.
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