A Saanichton, B.C., woman is raising the alarm after taking a taxi to the hospital due to lengthy delays in the ambulance dispatch system on Vancouver Island.
Erin Booth was doing her groceries in Sidney on Oct. 10 around 7 p.m., when she suddenly felt “intense pressure” in her head and a loss of hearing that prompted her to call 911.
“Fairly quickly, I had the switchboard operator come on and ask, ‘Police, fire, ambulance?'” she told Global News.
“I said ‘ambulance,’ at which point he informed me, ‘There’s a very long wait tonight, are you sure you need an ambulance?'”
Without another transport option, Booth said yes. She said the operator was unable to estimate the wait time, but promised to stay on the line with her while she waited.
He didn’t, and after about five minutes of listening to a pre-recorded message, Booth opted to take a taxi.
A B.C. Emergency Health Services dispatcher called her nearly two hours later, she said, asking if she still needed an ambulance.
At that point, she was at the hospital with an IV in her arm in preparation for medical tests.
In a written statement, BCEHS suggested Booth’s 911 call was “abandoned.”
It had an “abandoned” E-Comm 911 call in its system, originally time-stamped at 7:01 p.m. in the area Booth had called from, it said, and the call was coded as yellow — “non-urgent.”
BCEHS logged the call at 8:29 p.m., and “called patient back at 8:39 pm and left a message; called again and was informed patient already at the hospital.”
“If a 911 call is ever dropped or abandoned, BCEHS call-takers attempt to call the caller back to ensure everyone is OK, or an ambulance is still required,” said the statement.
Booth said she’s not satisfied.
“Through this whole entire process, I was never connected to B.C. Ambulance. I think that’s the key thing here,” she said.
“It wasn’t as if I was on the phone with an ambulance dispatcher walking me through my medical situation. It was just a pre-recorded (message) — ‘You’ve reached B.C. Ambulance, please don’t hang up.'”
Booth said she’s sharing her story not only to hold BCEHS to account, but also to warn others to have a backup plan in the event they need to call paramedics.
This month, British Columbians have reported numerous delays accessing 911 services, with the province’s largest dispatcher, E-Comm, publicly urging callers not to hang up if they hear a pre-recorded message.
E-Comm has previously said the abnormal wait times were the result of delays in connecting their operators with ambulance dispatchers.
BCEHS said it is “currently not experiencing the delays that occurred over the past week and into the long weekend.”
“Interim Chief Ambulance Officer Leanne Heppell is actively working with dispatch leaders to ensure our dispatch centres are able to meet periods of high demand,” reads its statement.
“Measures taken to date include increased clinical support in dispatch centres to help triage and manage calls and 24/7 manager support in dispatch to help with delays and escalation.”
BCEHS, the statement adds, is also hiring 30 new dispatch positions between now and December, to add to the 25 dispatchers it hired recently, who are in training.
Booth said BCEHS should publish ambulance wait times so decision-makers and the public can determine whether the system is working for them.
“To me, an hour-and-45-minute wait to be connected to an ambulance dispatcher — that means you don’t have the service, the service isn’t there.”
BCEHS said its regular volume is between 1,400 and 1,500 calls per day, but in the week leading up to the long weekend, volume averaged more than 2,000 calls per day.
The service encouraged patients in stable condition to find alternative transport to hospitals to avoid tying up paramedics and asked anyone with a non-urgent medical call to dial 811, not 911.