Ambulance policies must change after woman waited 3 hours for help and died, B.C. mayor says
VANCOUVER -- B.C.’s firefighters are heading to more calls after a policy change at the provincial level — but not so many that a situation that resulted in a Metro Vancouver woman’s death won’t be repeated, according to a local mayor.
Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart says he was shocked to learn about the death of Maureen Bower, who waited more than three hours for an ambulance, and later died of what her family said doctors described as a stroke.
“The current situation is really unacceptable,” Stewart told CTV News. “We can’t be having a three-hour wait for an ambulance.”
Stewart has been raising the alarm about a policy change in 2018 by B.C. Emergency Health Services, which operates ambulances in B.C. Before that, firefighters were called in a variety of medical situations as first responders to administer first aid, support paramedics, and provide a second set of eyes on the scene to make sure dispatchers weren’t making decisions solely based on the call by a bystander who could often be in emotional distress.
But in 2018, calls were colour-coded from blue, the least serious, to red and purple, the most serious. Firefighters were restricted to being notified on only red and purple calls, on the grounds it was a more efficient use of resources.
In April, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry restricted firefighters to just the most serious and life-threatening calls, purple, to avoid spreading COVID-19 further.
“We knew that at some point this was going to result in some serious ramifications. I’m deeply troubled that it was a death,” Stewart told CTV News.
On July 25, Maureen Bower collapsed in her home. Her husband phoned 911 at 5:01 p.m. and reported a fall, which was coded by B.C. Ambulance Service as a “yellow” call — not urgent, not serious, and non-life-threatening.
But when the Bowers’ next-door neighbour, retired firefighter Gary Lauwers, arrived at the home he saw signs that she could not remember numbers and was having difficulty lifting one of her arms above her head, and he concluded that the case was much more serious. He phoned 911, but was told sending firefighters was “not in the protocol.”
By 7:11 p.m. the dispatcher relented and sent firefighters. They moved Bower out onto the street so she could be more quickly picked up by an ambulance, which arrived at 8:07 p.m. The total time from call to ambulance arrival was three hours and six minutes.
Dr. Henry rolled back her earlier order last week, largely to pre-pandemic rules. The change has resulted in a surge of activity at local fire halls. In Vancouver, medical calls have more than tripled, and in Coquitlam, they have jumped six times.
“We’re now doing red calls, which are situations where someone might be experiencing cardiac issues, breathing issues,” said Vancouver Fire Capt. Jonathan Gormick.
But something described as a less serious case, such as a yellow that Bower’s case was originally categorized as, wouldn’t be handled differently under the new rules, he said.
“Information that the call taker has to triage with isn’t always accurate. A situation can be much more severe than it first appears,” Gormick said.
Bower’s case is being reviewed by BCEHS, and the family has filed a formal complaint.
Coquitlam Mayor Stewart called firefighters himself directly in a 2018 incident, where he came across a woman who had fallen and was in the hot sun. They moved her to the shade as they waited for the ambulance to arrive, he recalled.
Stewart said citizens should consider doing the same until the policy is changed to allow firefighters to be notified of a broader range of cases.
“If you call 911 and it’s urgent we should be sending everything we’ve got,” Stewart said.