COQUITLAM, B.C. -- A Coquitlam woman is dead and her family is fighting for answers after it took more than three hours for an ambulance to arrive, even though a neighbour and former firefighter was also sounding the alarm.

Maureen Bower’s condition steadily deteriorated over that time until it was too late, said her brother Ernie Mack, who has filed a formal complaint about what happened and is wondering why firefighters weren’t sent earlier to help.

“If they were there within the hour, she’d be recovering from a mild stroke. She’d still be alive,” Mack told CTV News. “I’m angry about the situation. Her grandkids will miss their grandmother.”

BC Emergency Health Services, which operates ambulances, says it was a busy night, complicated by increased call volumes from the ongoing opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. But the agency says it’s launched a Patient Safety Event Review.

“We know the response time was exceptionally long for this call. BC EHS has initiated a comprehensive review of this incident,” a spokesperson said.

Gary Lauwers, a retired firefighter who was present while the family waited for the ambulance, says the agency should be asking more questions about its policy not to call firefighters for most lower-priority calls.

“The protocol needs to be changed,” he said. “If it wasn’t for what happened, I believe she would be alive today.”

On July 25, Bower fell at her Coquitlam home. Lauwers, who lives next door, came to help, and her husband called 911 to report it at 5:01 p.m. He was first concerned about the neighbours and asked that the ambulance come without its sirens, Lauwers said.

At first, things seemed routine, but soon things changed.

“She couldn’t remember some of her phone numbers,” Lauwers said. “I asked her to lift her arms and one was way higher than the others. Her pulse was weak. I asked her if she’d had headaches. She said she’d been having headaches for two days. I was getting more concerned.”

He called 911 again and updated the dispatcher, asking for more immediate help, if not from the paramedics, then from the fire department.

“They said, ‘That’s not part of the protocol.’ I said, ‘I don’t care what the protocol is. I want someone here. I need some help,” Lauwers recalled.

Records show the dispatcher sent Coquitlam Fire Rescue at 7:11 p.m. Lauwers said they transported Bower out of the house so that when the ambulance got there she could be moved quickly. That didn’t happen until 8:07 p.m.

The total time, from call to arrival, was three hours and six minutes.

“Three hours doesn’t cut it,” said Lauwers.

In 2018, B.C. Emergency Health Services changed its dispatch system to get paramedics to critical situations faster by colour-coding responses.

For “purple” and “red” calls, when lives are at risk, both firefighters and paramedics are dispatched automatically.

But firefighters are now less likely to be sent to “orange” calls, when patients’ injuries are serious but not fatal, according to the policy.

Earlier this year, B.C.’s provincial health officer tightened the restrictions further to protect first responders from possible COVID-19 exposure, which restricted firefighters to just the “purple”-coded events.

While he worked, Lauwers said both firefighters and paramedics would be sent to more calls — ensuring that there was a safety valve if one agency took too long for whatever reason.

“Back in the day, we would both respond. And we would help each other,” he said.