VANCOUVER -- As British Columbians emerge from isolation and re-engage with friends and the outside world, 911 calls are already surging, and first responders are sounding the alarm as they warn people to be extra safe over the summer.

B.C.’s health minister recently revealed that June 2 saw the third-highest call volume for 911 in B.C. history, and CTV News Vancouver has learned that the first Saturday after the province lifted so-called “circuit breaker” restrictions saw exceptionally long waits for ambulance paramedics. 

“We had some staff shortages on that day, but the call volume increased by 30 per cent in a short period of time," said Neil Lilley, senior provincial executive director of patient care communications and planning for BC Emergency Health Services.

“It was between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. and volumes we don't even see at New Year's Eve, so it was really that short period of time and such an influx of call volume that really did put pressure on the system.”

The weekend was hot, sunny and the first time in months that public health restrictions were relaxed enough to allow people to see friends and family.

E-Comm 911 says there was no surge in any particular type of call for help, there were simply more of the same kinds of calls that typically come in – a 50 per cent increase overall. 

“We were expecting to see volumes increase, but not this early,” revealed E-Comm communications director Jasmine Bradley, who says the organization has numerous job vacancies to fill.

“Heading into the summer, which is historically always a busy time for E-Comm, we’re extremely concerned about the impact we could see on call volumes as the province continues to open up and we continue to see the phases of B.C.’s restart plan.”

Bradley said while E-Comm gets a lot of non-emergency calls – for everything from landlord-tenant disputes to non-emergency police reports, ICBC inquiries and questions about B.C.’s reopening dates – operators can’t just hang up. The non-emergency calls and backlog with paramedics has ripple-effects on other first responders.

“We’ve certainly seen – over the last couple weeks as citizens get out and about – pretty busy times for calls for service for fire emergencies and specifically medical emergencies,” said Vancouver Fire Fighters Union spokesperson Lee Lax, pointing to a rise in car crashes and public intoxication calls.

“The pre-hospital care system seems to be strained,” Lax added. “That last weekend of May, many of our firefighters experienced excessively long wait times for ambulance paramedics. We had dozens of calls where we had 30-minute to one-hour (waits), which is a sign of a system letting people down when they need the system the most.”

VANCOUVER POLICE AND THE CITY CONTINUING AS PLANNED

While emergency medical personnel are raising concerns about what some first responders are already referring to as “the Roaring Twenties,” Vancouver city hall and the city’s police department aren’t making any special plans to deal with a population that seems to be cutting loose and making up for lost time.

“Vancouver has always been a destination,” said city councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung. "We saw that last summer. I don't think this summer will be any different, except we'll have the benefit of having vaccinations and shots in people’s arms we didn't have last summer."

She also pointed out the city sees upwards of 10 million tourists every year, and international travel is unlikely to resume, so there will actually be fewer people in the city than usual. 

"I think we all see the light at the end of the tunnel right now,” Kirby-Yung said. “We are really fortunate that we've got a tremendous amount of parks and green space in the City of Vancouver and I think people are ready to get outside and enjoy it responsibly."

She added that the city’s police won’t be occupied enforcing COVID-19 restrictions for much longer.

“We’ve been extremely busy throughout the pandemic, responding to 911 calls, conducting Criminal Code investigations, enforcing the Emergency Program Act, monitoring protests, and tending to a variety of public safety issues,” wrote Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison in an email. “As we enter the coming phases of the reopening plan, we will certainly see more people returning to the pre-pandemic way of life. We have the experience and expertise to handle this.” 

BURNED OUT FIRST RESPONDERS NEEDING TIME OFF AS DEMAND SURGES

The paramedics’ union says the past two weeks have shown this summer will be anything but typical. The union warns this change is coming at a time when exhausted frontline workers are desperate for time off and a break from the intense strain of the dual health emergencies of the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a perfect storm and we’re really concerned about our staffing and workload impact,” said Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 873 president Troy Clifford.

“Our shortages in our communications centre – our emergency medical call takers and dispatchers – have been a significant challenge for us going back six or eight months, but really over the last month it’s really been enhanced and really exposed the vulnerability of that, and that’s very concerning.”

Lilley said BCEHS has hired 300 paramedics in the past year, and is in the process of hiring another 170 in the coming months, but would offer overtime to full-time employees and more hours to part-timers to ramp up staffing levels. When CTV News asked how soon more people would be on the job, he said “by summer.”

But Clifford says it’s been hard to recruit people willing to start their careers in rural B.C., where ambulance paramedics are paid just $2 an hour to be on standby, with limited benefits and no guarantee of work. The working conditions have resulted in a chronic shortage of paramedics, with serious consequences for patients who need timely help. 

“We need to modernize the service delivery model, recognize this profession is vital to public safety and health care and recognize the professionals doing the work and treat them similar to other health-care professionals,” he said.

At the same time, Clifford praised the provincial government for increasing funding and recognizing the staffing issues.

On Monday, the health minister acknowledged how busy first responders have been and that he expected the trend to continue.

“As our society comes back to normal, we may well see more of the events that lead people into emergency rooms in our province,” said Adrian Dix, reiterating a statistic from the previous week: June 2 was the busiest day for ambulances in B.C. history, aside from New Year’s Eves in 2017 and 2018.

As Clifford pushes for better pay and working conditions for his members, Lilley is urging British Columbians to be extra careful when they leave home, whether they’re enjoying active summer pursuits or just a relaxing day.

"Please be cautious,” he said. “If it is going to be hot, stay hydrated and don't drink too much alcohol. If you're going on a hike, go with other people … take as many precautions as you can not to put an increased burden on the system, but also to look after yourself and stay safe out there … It is going to be a busy summer for sure, and we will get to those sickest patients as quickly as we can, as we always do."

Whether BCEHS can maintain the same level of care and timeliness for less urgent patients is an open question.