Firefighters barred from attending most medical calls

BCHES cites concerns over protective equipment 

Photo SPIN

Firefighters won’t be dispatched to most medical calls in B.C., B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCHES) said. It’s a change that could disproportionately affect rural communities, such as Sun Peaks, which don’t have an ambulance station.

A statement sent to SPIN on April 3 by BCEHS, who operate the BC Ambulance Service, said B.C.’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, ordered a change to the protocol for notifying first responders across B.C. of medical emergency calls.

Firefighters will now be dispatched to all calls classified as purple, such as cardiac arrests. They will also be sent to some classified as red, time critical medical emergencies, if paramedics are expected to be delayed by 20 minutes or more. 

“The changes protect first responders (firefighters) from potential exposure to COVID-19,” the statement reads. “And limit spread of COVID-19 within communities. The changes are being made to maintain a reliable supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers, which includes paramedics.” 

Calls coded as orange, to which SPFR should be dispatched regularly, include things like strokes and other urgent and potentially serious issues. 

In a press conference on April 4, Henry said the change was not an order, but made in discussions with BCHES and firefighters. 

“It came out of our discussions at the emergency operations centre and it reflects, actually, the reality on the ground,” she said. “That fire services were not wanting to respond to health calls because of concerns about being exposed to COVID-19. It was decided with the paramedics, the BCHES as well as the fire services.” 

But while cities with ambulances nearby may see prompt ambulance response times, rural and remote areas, like Sun Peaks, often face longer waits for medical help. 

A SPIN investigation published on March 30 revealed that in 2019 the median response time for an ambulance to respond to purple or red calls in Sun Peaks was 28 minutes and 10 seconds. A 2019 report from B.C.’s auditor general stated in urban and rural (an area with on call or standby paramedics) areas most calls to high-acuity events are responded to within three to 15 minutes. In remote areas with no paramedics, like Sun Peaks,  high-acuity calls see longer response times, but usually between nine to 30 minutes. Some callers still wait 30 to 45 minutes for an ambulance to respond. 

Despite this discrepancy no changes have been announced that would allow firefighters to attend medical calls in communities with longer ambulance response times.  

The decision has firefighters across the province speaking out. 

Vancouver Fire chief Darrell Reid tweeted on April 4 that Vancouver Fire Rescue did not ask for the change. 

“Vancouver Fire Rescue did not ask for major reductions in dispatches to medical calls and were not expecting the announcement,” he wrote. “Early in the pandemic we worked with BCEHS on a six to seven per cent response reduction to less serious calls. We want an evidence-based, patient-focused solution.” 

Reid’s sentiment was retweeted by Central Saanich Fire Department, the Kelowna Professional Firefighters Association, Delta Firefighters, the chief of Nanaimo Fire Rescue, Kamloops Professional Firefighters Association, Surrey Firefighters Association and others. 

A statement posted on the SPFR Facebook page on April 5 confirmed the changes will apply in Sun Peaks. 

“Under the new policy, effective immediately, Sun Peaks Fire Rescue will only be dispatched to the most critical of medical emergencies. This change was made in an effort to minimize COVID-19 exposure to first responders,” the post read. “SPFR currently has the resources, including personal protective equipment, to attend any medical emergency in our community and keep our responders and the public safe.”

SPIN has requested comment from BCHES, the Fire Chiefs Association of B.C. and the provincial health officer’s office. More information will be published as it’s made available.