The B.C. government is shaking up BC Emergency Health Services after growing concerns over response times following a historic heat wave in the province.
Health Minister Adrian Dix has announced a new position as B.C.’s chief ambulance officer. The province is also funding 85 new full-time paramedic positions.
“When we call for help, we need to know help is on the way, and that it will arrive quickly,” Dix said.
“Immediate action on operations, as well as stronger leadership and increased investment at BC Emergency Health Services, will deliver a more effective ambulance service for patients and families who depend on it. Better support for paramedics and dispatchers will help them do the vital work we count on every day.”
Global News has reported multiple stories of B.C. paramedics speaking out about what they say is a “systemic crisis in the emergency service.”
Pressure has increased to make changes after at least 719 people died in a week during the heat wave — three times what the BC Coroners Service says would be normal for that period.
To ensure direct leadership of ambulance services, Dix is now ensuring the board of directors will focus solely on ambulance service.
The board will report directly to Dix.
The former chief constable of the Vancouver Police Department Jim Chu has been appointed to chair the board.
“I am enthusiastic to bring what I have learned from my time as chief constable of the Vancouver Police Department to this important role,” Chu said.
“I look forward to working together with the Ministry of Health, BC Emergency Health Services management, paramedics and dispatchers to ensure the ambulance service provides timely and exceptional help for British Columbians, and that it’s an outstanding employer for workers.”
Dix has appointed Leanne Heppell to serve as B.C.’s new chief ambulance officer on an interim basis.
She has 20 years of experience in senior leadership at Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health and the BC Ambulance Service.
On top of hiring the 85 new full-time paramedics, Dix announced plans to hire 30 full-time dispatchers, put in place 22 new ambulances and convert 22 rural ambulance stations to 24/7 ALPHA stations to enhance ambulance coverage for these communities.
Plans for up to an additional 16 stations will be ready by October 2021.
It was revealed BC Emergency Health Services did not activate its emergency coordination centre until the day the recent heat wave began to subside.
“I’ll say two things that I expect from BCEHS: one, when people need an ambulance and call 911 an ambulance should get there; and two, that we should be an outstanding employer,” Dix said on Tuesday.
“Those are our priorities and that’s what I am continuing to pursue.”
British Columbians reported hours-long waits for emergency service during the heat wave.
There has been growing concern that many staff are still on-call rather than full-time employees. It is an issue the province says it is addressing.
“When I became minister of health, about 36 per cent of ambulance paramedics were full- or part-time permanent staff. That number, by the time our changes are made, the ones that are proposed to be made, it’ll be over 50 per cent,” Dix 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.
“We won’t stop until that commitment is fulfilled,” Dix said.
He has also directed the BC Emergency Health Services to contract a team of mental health and wellness professionals to work directly with dispatch staff and paramedics to address chronic stress, fatigue and support wellness among staff.
According to the province, between 2017 and 2019, B.C. added 115 paramedic positions to support direct patient care, improve service and response times, and modernize dispatch operations. Since January 2021, 271 paramedics have been hired by BC Emergency Health Services.
As part of the changes, Telus CEO Darren Entwistle will serve as a special adviser to the board.
— with files from Simon Little and Neetu Garcha