Puppies put before people in puzzling B.C. ambulance policy
Published Wednesday, November 1, 2017 9:22PM PDT
Last Updated Wednesday, November 1, 2017 11:03PM PDT
The BC Ambulance Service will answer questions about its paramedics resuscitating pets, but has decided to muzzle its staff when it comes to most serious incidents involving people.
It’s a head-scratching strategy that the agency said was supposed to be about making this easier for its overworked dispatchers. A document obtained by CTV News, however, shows BCAS hid its principal rationale.
It was communications staffers who requested the change, according to a briefing note -- they wanted to get a break from answering calls and improve the agency’s reputation by refusing to talk about regular calls, and focus on "fun fact" stories involving animals instead.
Dog walkers approached by CTV News seemed confused by a focus on pets over most types of incidents that involve people.
“I think if you called 911 and said it’s for my dog, I don’t know if they would take you seriously,” said Tina Rensby, who was walking Aurora and Mona near the Olympic Village in Vancouver.
Alyn Edwards, a partner at Peak Communicators, thinks there’s a purpose behind trying to avoid addressing how the agency handled tough responses – even though being transparent can actually help improve the service.
“Resuscitating an animal is something they will respond to because theoretically it makes them look good,” he said.
But the head of the B.C. Ambulance Service is denying that the agency misled the public to avoid accountability.
In an interview with CTV News, Linda Lupini said the agency was trying to strike a balance between the resource demands of a call for information from the media and dispatchers who are swamped.
“Nobody misled the public. They’re both important. A communications officer cannot give any information to anyone in the media without speaking to people who are directly involved in the operations,” she said.
Lupini said she would examine the policy again to see if it's possible to avoid absolute refusals to communicate about whole categories of BCAS work.
“I’d be happy to look at it and see if we can prioritize it differently,” she said.
About 14 months ago, the BC Ambulance Service announced it would no longer answer questions about what it called “routine” calls.
“Due to growing volume of information requests that are putting a strain on our dispatch personnel, we will no longer be gathering and providing information to news media about routine ambulance response calls, such as motor vehicle incidents and police-involved emergencies,” the agency said.
But a briefing note obtained via a freedom of information request tells a different story.
In preparing the policy, bureaucrats didn’t study how hard dispatchers are working, looking instead at the workload of their own communications staff, the note says.
Over a period of 12 weeks, the three staff members were answering an average of about three media calls a night, the note says.
“The high volume of after-hours pager calls for information on motor vehicle incidents is creating extra work for BCEHS dispatch staff, and burnout for PHSA communications staff,” the note reads. “Communications is recommending a new media response policy of no longer responding to requests for information on routine emergencies.”
“This will…reduce staff burnout and fatigue, increase morale and engagement, and increase the willingness of staff to monitor the after-hours media line; enable communications staff to have more time to devote to patient-focused and other strategic media opportunities and inquiries,” it says.
The note does not detail any change in the number of calls or examine dispatcher workload. As examples of “routine calls” it describes motor vehicle incidents, burning houses or structures, drownings, stabbings, shootings and highway closures.
The note proposes responding to a questions on major incident that involves more than three patient transfers and “fun facts: pet resuscitated by paramedics.”
According to BCAS, its paramedics did revive a dog outside of a house fire in 2015, though there are several reports of firefighters doing the same thing in Vancouver since 2015.
The union that represents dispatchers wasn’t impressed that the workload of their members had been used as an excuse to lighten the loads of people doing office jobs where life and death doesn’t hang in the balance.
“To blame the reason for not getting back to the media on their workload is not very fair to them,” said Dave Deines of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C.
CTV News checked and ambulance services in Alberta and Toronto respond to routine requests for information, including that an ambulance was dispatched, what time, how long it took to get there, and some basic information about what happened.
In Seattle, officials put basic information online so the public can monitor their activities in real time.
Lupini said she hoped to move towards an automatic system that would take less staff time and be more transparent.