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'We're taking action': B.C.'s new ambulance boss gives first interview

Vancouver -

She was appointed less than two weeks after the catastrophic heat dome claimed hundreds of lives and the health-care system was inundated with sick and dying British Columbians. Now, the province’s new top paramedic is speaking about changes at the ambulance service for the first time.

Leanne Heppell has been the Chief Ambulance Officer at BC Emergency Health Services for four months, overseeing operations and staffing of ambulance paramedics, call-takers and dispatchers. 

"It's the largest transformation that we've had in the entire service, it's a huge amount of staff that we're hiring: over 600 in the province,” she said, defending the figure even when CTV News pointed out most of the jobs are part-time-to-full-time conversions, rather than new positions.

“This is a chance to stabilize our staff in these communities by providing them with permanent positions and permanent benefits.”

Heppell insists that recruitment efforts are going well, despite widespread criticism of the career path for paramedics. Most typically start their careers in small towns, earning just $2 per hour to be on call for service, with the precarious work lasting for years before they earn enough seniority and experience for a full-time job.

"We're coming very close to ending the pager pay,” said Heppell, who said she’s taking all measures possible to shore up staffing levels amid a 30-per-cent absentee rate.

“We're taking action. We're doing a variety of different fronts to try and strengthen the service, and so one of the main things we're doing right now is recruiting and getting as many staff as we possibly can into the service." 


CTV News has learned that the ambulance service has faced critical shortages in key areas, notably among call-takers. They have had as few as eight positions staffed out of the two dozen typically needed to cover the province on a busy Friday night, a figure Heppell did not dispute.

"That was why we did the big recruitment drive. Our call volumes have gone up, particularly in the summer, so in addition to recruiting we have changed the model in dispatch,” she said. “We've added paramedic specialists, we've added physicians, nurses – all of that is assisting our call-takers in addition to our 24-7 (management staffing).”

BCEHS is also expanding a community shuttle program that started as a pilot project in Fraser Health. The Low Acuity Response Unit is staffed by paramedics who take patients needing transportation for non-emergency medical attention to urgent care centres rather than hospitals, leaving ambulances free to handle urgent calls.

Heppel has also been assigning managers to more hands-on duties, making sure one is always in the call-taking centre to support dispatchers and the paramedics giving life-saving medical advice, as well as sending them to the Granville entertainment district on Halloween weekend.


Despite being unable to answer why extra staff weren’t called in during the record-breaking temperatures forecast during the heat dome, BCEHS says no executives have lost their jobs. Several frontline workers tell CTV News that unless there are more leadership changes, they are skeptical the morale issues and direction of the service can improve.

A pay scale well below other first responders and health-care-worker peers is leading to some paramedics leaving to work in the private sector or for better-paying work as firefighters. Heppell isn’t committing to a pay raise to improve retention, but is undeterred in her confidence that she can turn the ship around with the province investing money and resources.

“It's a combination of bringing in more staff and coming up with more innovative ways of managing the high demand of the call volumes," she said. “There is no one service in health care that can function on their own, we have to work in a collaborative model supporting each other.”

This is the fourth part of a CTV News Vancouver series examining British Columbia’s pre-hospital care system.

Part one: Not just a paramedic issue: What's behind 911 call delays in B.C.

Part two: B.C. family doctor shortage impacting 911 service and ambulance waits

Part three: B.C. paramedics understaffed by up to 40 per cent daily due to burnout, injuries, vacancies Top Stories

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