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New 911 protocol in B.C. has some patients waiting longer

WATCH: Critics claim the new 911 protocol implemented in B.C. last May has resulted in longer wait times for some callers. Aaron McArthur explains.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect the fact that the¬†BCEHS receives¬†more than half-million calls per year, 140,000 of which don’t require transport.

When does a medical call need first responders? How long can a patient wait? Who decides?

These are the questions at the centre of a spat between fire departments and the government agency responsible for B.C. paramedics.

Last May, B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) reorganized how 911 calls are prioritized.

According to Port Coquitlam Fire Chief Nick Delmonico, it has meant firefighters are not being dispatched to some serious medical calls. A recent report indicates call volume is down 25 per cent in Port Coquitlam and 18 per cent in neighbouring Port Moody.

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“I have a major concern with how medium-priority calls are being handled,” he said.

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BCEHS labels those calls as “orange” and firefighters are not being sent if an ambulance can get there within 10 minutes. According to Delmonico, orange calls are still serious and can include convulsions or seizures, drug overdoses, or even chest pains and he says patients are suffering longer than they need to because dispatch doesn’t call the first responders.

“Our response time averages about four minutes and 30 seconds…as an example, B.C. Ambulance averages close to 14 minutes,” he said. “Why you wouldn’t want somebody on scene of a very serious call for 10 minutes prior to the ambulance getting there is beyond me.”

The issues are compounded because first responders are often getting calls after the fact. In some cases, up to 20 minutes later. An example Delmonico gives is when paramedics are on scene treating a patient, but can’t load them into the ambulance.

The fire department is only called then for what’s called an emergency lift, and according to Delmonico, it’s the patient who ends up suffering needlessly.

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The BCEHS says the new protocols are working. As part of the $90-million investment by the provincial government to reduce wait times, higher priority calls are still getting first responders sent immediately and wait times for those patients have gone down.

According to the BCEHS, out of more than a half-million calls per year, 140,000 don’t require transport.

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“People should have absolute confidence when they call 911 that they will receive the best possible care,” Neil Lilley with BCEHS said.

That is not to say more can’t be done. There is ongoing dialogue between fire departments and BCEHS and the procedures in place are continuing to evolve.

BCEHS and the B.C. Emergency Health Services will be addressing these concerns at a meeting next week.