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Firefighters say 911 policy leaving them sidelined during some medical calls
A new 911 policy designed to improve ambulance response times also has firefighters feeling sidelined during lower-risk medical calls when they could be helping out.
B.C. Emergency Health Services changed its dispatch system back in June in an effort to get paramedics out to critical situations faster, and the agency says response times have been reduced by minutes – an improvement that can potentially mean the difference between life and death.
The colour-coded system is set up to prioritize resources. For "purple" and "red" calls, when lives might be at risk, both paramedics and firefighters are dispatched automatically. But firefighters are now less likely to be sent to "orange" calls, when patients' injuries are serious but not seemingly fatal.
The result has left fire crews with less to do, according to their union.
"Firefighters want to make a difference in the community that they serve, and by responding to less calls it's taking that opportunity away," said Gord Ditchburn, president of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association.
It also prevented them from learning about a medical situation that was happening right across the street from a fire station in Coquitlam this summer, according to Mayor Richard Stewart.
Stewart said an 80-year-old woman lost consciousness and collapsed at Town Centre Park on a hot Sunday in July, and even though a volunteer first aid attendant called 911, the Town Centre Fire Hall was never notified.
About a half hour after the woman's fall, paramedics still hadn't arrived, so Stewart called the fire department personally.
"(Firefighters) were there about a minute and a half, two minutes later and took over," Stewart said.
Paramedics eventually reached the scene about a half hour after that, according to the mayor, who fears the new system is under-utilizing firefighters' services.
"If it produces this kind of result where an 80-year-old is lying in the hot sun on hot pavement for an hour, then something's gone wrong," Stewart said.
B.C. Emergency Health Services defended its dispatch model, however, noting that it's been tried and tested in different jurisdictions.
Executive vice-president Linda Lupini couldn't discuss the specific incident in Coquitlam, but said it's the type of call where firefighters should have been contacted.
In an update issued later in the day, BCEHS said firefighters were not initially called in because "the details we got on the first call from the scene were inaccurate as to the patient's condition.
"Once we received updated information from another person at the scene, it resulted in an immediate upgrade of the call and an automated notification to firefighters to be dispatched as per our policy and protocol," the statement read. "Unfortunately, we have no control over the information we get from the scene and at times it is not accurate."
It's unclear, however, if the mayor's phone call to the fire department came before or after the call was upgraded.
Under the new system, firefighters are to be called to code orange situations when dispatchers believe they will reach the scene before paramedics. But an influx of resources stemming from a $31 million funding injection this year also means that paramedics are faster than they used to be.
"In the Lower Mainland, fire departments get to calls on average in seven minutes. And if we can't get there in seven minutes from processing the call, we send the fire department," Lupini said.
While firefighters can't provide the same level of care that paramedics can, the union said they offer valuable preliminary assessments and help provide a sense of calm in situations that can otherwise be hectic in the absence of first responders.
Both the firefighters' union and Mayor Stewart also insisted the Coquitlam call was not an isolated incident, though BCEHS disagrees.
"We have not had any patient complaints about any calls that took an inordinately long time … or that should have had a fire response and didn’t," Lupini said.
BCEHS says it will continue to review "all aspects of this call."
With files from CTV Vancouver's Breanna Karstens-Smith