On the heels of an extreme heat wave, the B.C. government is taking action to bolster ambulance services in rural communities.
On July 14, B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix announced BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) will be increasing the number of full-time paramedics, dispatchers and ambulances in the province. The announcement followed a surge in 911 calls related to the recent heat wave, which added pressure to a service already taxed by the ongoing opioid crisis.
As part of the announcement, Dix said 22 rural ambulance stations will be converted to provide around-the-clock coverage with full-time personnel. That transition isn’t expected to happen until the end of the year, with six stations slated to be up and running by October 2021. Plans for the 16 other stations are expected to be ready around the same time, with the transition occurring the following year.
Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia – CUPE Local 873 (APBC), said the changes are a step forward for paramedics. However, he said the province also needs to address ongoing concerns around on-call work.
New full-time positions will be filled based on seniority with a one-to-one provincial to local hire ratio, he said.
Until the transition to full-time staffing is complete, Clifford said rural stations like the ones in Sicamous, Revelstoke and Golden will be operating under a schedule-on-call system. This means those stations will be staffed with a full-time crew for day shifts, seven days a week. The remaining hours will be covered by on-call “kilo” shift paramedics.
Kilo shifts require a paramedic to stay in their community (but not at their station), carry a pager and respond to any calls as quickly as possible. Paramedics are paid $2/hour to carry a pager, and four hours of regular pay if they respond to a call — plus regular pay for any time longer than four hours.
Clifford said more needs to be done about the $2/hour kilo shifts, which he said are “precarious work” and impact the province’s ability to recruit paramedics.
Joel LaFortune, a former BCEHS paramedic of seven years, said it was demoralizing when he’d clear his schedule for a 12-hour kilo shift, not get a call, and only come home with $24. That was ultimately why he left the job, even though he loved the work.
BCEHS will be phasing out ambulances staffed under the “fox” shift, which required on-call paramedics to remain at their station during a shift (unless out on a call) and respond within 90 seconds. Fox-shift paramedics were paid a minimum wage stipend to be in the station, and full wages when out on a call.
Fox shifts were how some rural stations were able to be staffed 24/7 before July 14’s changes.
Clifford said BCEHS has every right to implement the schedule-on-call model in the interim for rural communities, as it was negotiated in its 2019-2022 Collective Agreement with APBC.
However, it’s not the most optimal model it could implement, he said.