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A B.C. family called 911 for an ambulance. A recorded message told them to try again.


Nearly two years after the health minister announced an overhaul of British Columbia’s Emergency Health Services, delays for dispatch and ambulance service continue and an upsetting message greets some callers to 911. 

Throughout the course of the pandemic, provincial statistics show that calls for emergent and critical medical attention have grown, and while the government has poured millions of dollars into B.C. Emergency Health Services, those seeking help from paramedics can still find themselves waiting on hold after calling the emergency line.

“There was just nothing and about two minutes went by and all of a sudden this message came on and it was a recorded message that said, ‘If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial 911 again,’” said Doug Bigg, describing what happened after he called 911 and was routed to the ambulance service Sunday night. 

He told CTV News his 23-year-old daughter had lost hearing and vision as she started sweating profusely, collapsing as she tried to walk out of a Cloverdale restaurant for some fresh air. He called twice, after following the instructions to hang up and call again the first time. He estimates at least 10 minutes passed before he was put through to a dispatcher.

“We were feeling helpless because we couldn’t do anything for her and we’re waiting and waiting and waiting for an ambulance to show up – that didn’t,” said Biggs, explaining a family member took his daughter to hospital after waiting more than half an hour. “It was a disgusting experience…I’m waiting to talk to someone and the message, they said to call back.”


The chief operating officer for BCEHS said according to their records, the patient was conscious with numb hands by the time their dispatcher was involved.

“We triaged it through our call-taking system and was identified as a low acuity call. We had an ambulance en route to attend,” said Neil Lilley. “I would encourage anyone who has to wait and has a difficult time with a call, especially this family, to reach out to EHS directly and we'd be happy to do a fulsome investigation.”

While there are national benchmarks for ambulance attendance in urgent and critical calls, identified by red and purple colour-coding, there’s no standard for non-emergency, low-acuity calls. Nonetheless, Health Minister Adrian Dix took an interest in the case when asked about it by CTV News. 

“Whenever you're calling an ambulance and it doesn't come or doesn't come fast enough, that's a subject of concern to me and obviously everybody,” he said.

Lilley said there was “very good staffing” Sunday night, saying it was at 95 per cent across the province for paramedics and dispatchers. In the past two years, it has not been unusual for 20 to 40 per cent of ambulances to be unstaffed on any given day. 


Dix and EHS insisted there’s been unprecedented investment in the ambulance service and touted near-unanimous acceptance of a new collective agreement for paramedics in February. 

“This isn't just about filling existing vacancies, we've added an incredible number of new positions into the system as well and we're very confident we're making very good ground in our staffing,” Lilley said.

“Over the last 12 months, we've recruited almost 800 paramedics into the system and we continue to recruit. We're throwing loads of workforce at it, we're seeing gains and gains at an exponential rate.” 

The Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of BC, however, says despite recruitment efforts that’ve drawn more applicants, there are bottlenecks in training and hiring.

“A lot of the delay is in the human resources system within BCEHS,” said union president, Troy Clifford, who’s calling for scrutiny of the resources required and available in urban areas of the province in particular.

“It’s not all wonderful as described and we’re still seeing significant delays and unless we get a handle on this we’ll keep seeing those delays as we get into the busy season.” 

He said BCEHS is in a third round of mass hiring after an injection of funding, but those people still aren’t on the job.

“There’s better recruitment, but it’s not filling longstanding voids,” he said. “We still have 500 to 1000 ultimate positions open. We're seeing out-of-service (issues) still, around the province.” Top Stories

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