By Jeff Nagel and Tyler Olsen
Abbotsford has received two new ambulances as part of a government initiative to improve substandard emergency response times across the province.
The move comes after complaints from council that the city is sometimes left with just one active ambulance.
In September, the city’s public safety advisory committee heard from a representative of the paramedics union who told members that “every 24 hours, there are numerous periods where there are unstaffed or no ambulances available in Abbotsford,” according to the minutes from the meeting. On those occasions, the committee was told an ambulance is dispatched from Chilliwack or Langley. Previously, a B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) representative reported that the average response time in Abbotsford was nine minutes and 44 seconds.
That was more than the international standard of nine minutes, but below the average of 10 minutes and 24 seconds for ambulances to reach life-threatening calls in the Lower Mainland and Greater Victoria.
The new action plan unveiled Friday by BCEHS calls for big changes to how minor emergency calls are handled – more on-the-spot treatment by paramedics or even medical advice by phone is likely rather than the standard practice of an ambulance ride to hospital.
“There are still too many patients waiting too long for an ambulance who need one and there are too many patients receiving an ambulance and a transport to an ED (emergency department) that don’t require it,” BCEHS executive vice-president Linda Lupini said.
A new target of under nine minutes for 75 per cent of those critical calls is also being adopted.
In addition to the Abbotsford ambulances, three vehicles will be deployed in Surrey, two in Langley and one on the North Shore. Extra paramedics have also been added in the Tri Cities.
Abbotsford previously had eight ambulances, of which three were in service 24 hours a day, one was in service for 11 hours each day, while the other four operated between 35 and 40 hours per week.
But Lupini said the move is just an immediate stop gap to relieve pressure, with much more improvement required through a combination of more resources and innovation.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said he “was very pleased,” to learn of the new ambulances, which came after what he called “pointed questions” from the city about the matter.
“I think it’s going to be much better,” he said, although he added that the city will wait to see how the new vehicles are integrated into the ambulance system.
While more money is being requested, much of the planned reforms focus on other methods to speed up ambulance response times to critical calls and to cancel or redirect ambulance transport for less urgent calls that can be handled differently.
Lupini said many of those calls “could be dealt with by physicians over the phone or a paramedic seeing and treating a patient without bringing a patient to an emergency room, because that’s what really ties up resources.”
The top reform priority is to reduce how long paramedics wait in hospital emergency departments to hand over incoming patients so they can get back on the road. Fraser Health hospitals are expected to be at the forefront of making the necessary ER reforms.
Faster dispatch and deployment times to get ambulances in service is another strategy.
The latest reform plan comes in the wake of ongoing complaints from municipalities and their fire departments of unacceptably long waits for ambulances to arrive and transport non-critical patients.
That was the result of a controversial restructuring of the B.C. Ambulance Service priority system that aimed to speed ambulances to life-threatening calls but often slowed it to others.
Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis said he’s optimistic about the changes.
“It should make it more of an efficient system,” he said.