New staffing model raises questions about ambulance response times

The Peachland Ambulance Station. Photo Joanne Layh

Joanne Layh

A recent BC Emergency Health Services staffing model change may be cause for concern to residents of small communities, contends Mayor Cindy Fortin.

In response to a request from the mayor, BC Emergency Health Services representative Joe Puskaric attended last week’s committee meeting to provide an update to Peachland council.

“BCEHS is enhancing our emergency services capacity in rural and remote stations that serve a community and surrounding areas,” said Puskaric. 

Historically, BCEHS has relied on on-call staffing to maintain ambulance service in small communities, but this staffing model presents challenges for reliable coverage, pay, recruitment, and retention of staff in these communities, said Puskaric. 

“Without regular predictable income, paramedics often need to move to larger centres to secure full-time work. BCEHS undertook deployment and staffing model changes at hundreds of stations across B.C. to bring more sustainable work to each of these communities.”

The new staffing model was implemented at the Peachland Ambulance Station on Oct. 29, 2021. Prior to then, the Peachland station was staffed by on-call paramedics, said Puskaric.  

The result of that change is a 24-hour ambulance staffed by eight full-time paramedics, however, the ambulance may not always be positioned in Peachland. 

Of 280 recent ambulance calls in Peachland, 122 were responded to by the Peachland ambulance, 119 were responded to by the Kelowna and West Kelowna ambulance services, 35 were responded to by Summerland and four were responded to by other stations.

Puskaric said BC Ambulance is a provincial service and neighbouring communities will cover each other when their ambulance is out of the area, such as when the ambulance is transporting a patient to the hospital in Kelowna.

“My understanding is that they are often called for cross coverage and are sitting out in other towns and cities, sometimes just sitting there waiting on a call based on where that call may be, leaving our station without an ambulance, sometimes for 12 hours at a time,” said Mayor Cindy Fortin. “Is that the case?”

If it becomes very busy and all of the ambulances get tied up on calls in the area from Kelowna to Penticton, they try to spread the resources out, said Puskaric. 

“Yes, sometimes the ambulance from here goes out to West Kelowna to ensure coverage for Peachland, West Kelowna and Kelowna, because cars get really busy, they get tied up at the hospitals where they’re transferring patients,” he said. “Likewise, when Peachland gets a call and they go and take the patient to the hospital, Summerland may have to come in closer to cover not only Summerland but also Peachland, or West Kelowna has to come in and cover both communities from a distance. Not necessarily in the community, but in the surrounding area so it covers the whole area.”

“I don’t believe it’s safe for our community,” said Fortin. “When people have a false sense of security that the ambulance is in downtown Peachland and they’re having a heart attack or stroke or something or their child possibly has a head injury, and the ambulance isn’t here, do you not believe that’s dangerous that instead of a five-minute call that it might take 20-40 minutes or more for an ambulance from another community to come to the area?” 

Puskaric said they try to provide the best coverage they can with the resources that are available at the time.

“To my mind the key statistic that is missing from your report is the actual response times,” said Coun. Keith Fielding. “I’m sure you probably have a standard that you aim for but none of that information is in the report.”

“I think that’s important, the response time. I don’t care where you locate, but we want service,” said CAO Joe Creron. “If the BC Ambulance doesn’t provide the service, then our fire department that we pay for has to provide that service. It’s like an indirect provincial downloading, which is of concern for me.”

Puskaric offered to supply response time statistics at a future time.

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