‘One-size-fits-all’: Paramedics in northern B.C. slam solution to staffing shortages

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Paramedics in northern British Columbia are criticizing a recent change in scheduling, saying they can no longer support themselves financially and are worried more vacancies will hurt a provincial system that is already stretched thin.

Sam, a veteran paramedic on Haida Gwaii, said they had to quit because they can no longer earn enough of a living under the new scheduling model. Global News has agreed to use a pseudonym for Sam to prevent retribution from their former employer, BC Emergency Health Services.

“I think the crisis we are having right now is a result of (BCEHS) trying to fix it with a one-size-fits-all solution,” Sam told Global News.

Under the previous model, on-call paramedics in remote areas often had to work a second job to supplement their income, Sam said.

Both their employers allowed them to wear an ambulance pager at work when on call, leave to respond if needed, and then return to their original shift.

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On Nov. 1, BCEHS introduced a new “scheduled on-call” model specifically to deal with a lack of paramedics, provide more consistent coverage and improve recruitment and retention.

All positions are now required to work three shifts on, and three shifts off with no consistency week to week, which, Sam said, prevents them from taking on that second job.

“We have now had two code-three calls that have had no response,” they said. “It might not be this community, it might not even be this island, but somebody is going to die.”

In a statement, BCEHS acknowledged Haida Gwaii is facing staffing shortages, and that 11 of the 16 new permanent part-time positions are still open.

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“However, BCEHS is a provincial ambulance service with no community boundaries. When we have unstaffed ambulances we have a system in place to send ambulances from the surrounding stations,” the statement to Global News said.

There are four stations on Haida Gwaii: in Masset, Queen Charlotte, Port Clements and Sandspit. The drive time between Queen Charlotte and Port Clements, for example, is approximately 60 minutes.

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In the meantime, the agency said it will keep a “small pool” of on-call paramedics to help in specific areas.

Paramedics who hold scheduled on-call positions on the island can also choose to pick up on-call shifts in addition to their scheduled hours, and staff from other parts of the province can come to Haida Gwaii temporarily to fill in — with local staff being given priority.

“Recruitment efforts are ongoing in Haida Gwaii. BCEHS continues to provide full support to the paramedic staff on Haida Gwaii and is coordinating with community leaders on emergency response in the communities,” the statement said.

Sam said they have talked with paramedics across the province, including those in Prince Rupert, Atlin, and Vancouver Island, who have shared a similar anxiety about the new system. They are also troubled by staff on Haida Gwaii retiring before vacancies can be filled.

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Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of B.C. union, said the staffing model is being reviewed to determine if it is viable before a new collective agreement is ratified in March.

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Clifford said he does not believe there was proper consultation between BCEHS and communities before the scheduling change was made.

“A lot of the locals who have been covering (shifts) are not able to commit to that new shift pattern. I believe that the ambulance service hoped that would be the case, that the locals would take on this new shift pattern and nothing would change,” he said.

He said the new “scheduled on-call” model has proven to be problematic in smaller towns that are already struggling to recruit and retain staff.

“It’s not just Haida Gwaii. We are seeing it in Atlin, some of the Gulf Islands, I know Galiano is having challenges, and Cortez. Even in the Kootenays. A lot of these really remote communities just aren’t getting these positions filled,” said Clifford.

“Historically, how you cover these communities (is) you rely on the local people who are essentially willing to volunteer because there’s not a lot of money in it. But that model isn’t sustainable anymore.”

Ultimately, Sam said paramedics should be getting better compensation for on-call shifts in order for the new scheduling model to work.

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“I am in no way, shape or form choosing to leave the service. That choice was forced upon me,” they said.

“I’m going to miss it. I love this job.”

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