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'You're pretty much non-stop': Behind the scenes with Vancouver's paramedics and dispatchers

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This is the second story in a three-part series following Vancouver’s police, paramedics and firefighters. 

First there was the toxic drug crisis, then the COVID-19 pandemic, then a worker shortage. These compounding crises have put Vancouver's paramedics and dipatchers under unprecedented strain.

CTV News took a ride around the city with Brian Twaites, a paramedic specialist who splits his time between responding to emergency calls and working in communications with B.C. Emergency Health Services. Twaites has been a paramedic for more than 30 years and almost his entire career has spent around Vancouver’s downtown core.

“I was a young teenager and I decided what I wanted to do with my life,” Twaites said. “There was an attraction to medicine but there was also an attraction to being out on the street.”

In his time on the streets, Twaites said the biggest change is the increase in calls for help.

“The night shifts used to be a little bit quieter but you’re pretty much non-stop now,” he said.

In the first weeks of 2023, paramedics have received an average of 750 calls per day in the Vancouver area. Last year's average was 740 a day.

THE TOXIC DRUG CRISIS

Twaites has worked throughout Vancouver, and the Downtown Eastside, since the beginning of the opioid crisis. For first responders, the challenge is keeping people alive when the drug supply is becoming increasingly toxic.

“We’re finding our patients are unconscious and not breathing for a much longer period of time. And because (the drug is) synthetic we have to use sometimes four or five times the amount of narcan that we would normally give to somebody,” Twaites said. “It’s about four to six minutes before brain cells start to die.”

On Jan. 19, 2021, BC EHS set a sombre record with 203 overdose calls -- the highest number recorded in a single day. Twaites said he once attended 26 in one shift. While he managed to resuscitate 22 people, four died.

"Unfortunately, we were unable to resuscitate them,” he said. “It was too late.”

THE DISPATCH CENTRE

All 911 calls in B.C. go to the emergency communications centre, known as E-Comm. Medical calls are directed to Dispatch. The Vancouver dispatch centre covers calls from Pemberton to Boston Bar, the Sunshine Coast and Bowen Island. Call-takers are trained to give life saving medical advice over the phone before paramedics arrive at the scene.

Charge dispatcher Melissa Foulds said the team will handle 1,900 calls a day, on average. In 2021 they hit a record of 2,500 calls in a single day.

“I think it was just a summer day,” Foulds said. “It’s a tough job, not everyone can do it.”

STAFF SHORTAGE

The paramedics' union has long sounded the alarm of a staff shortage for both ambulance workers and dispatchers. Last month the president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. said nearly half of all ambulance vehicles in B.C.'s Lower Mainland were out of service because there were no no workers to fill them.

According to BC EHS, a quarter of its regular full-time and part-time positions across the province are unfilled. There are a number of reasons for this including a shift away from casual, on-call positions, the addition of more than 1,000 new permanent positions since 2021 and staff illness, including mental health.

The department said it’s also continuing to actively recruit staff from across the country. In 2022, more than 500 new employees went through the orientation process, and there are currently more than 300 new applicants being processed.

Last month the province's ambulance paramedics and their employer reached a tentative agreement on a new contract, following months of negotiations. The deal is yet to be ratified and the current agreement expires on April 1.

Union president Troy Clifford confirmed to CTV News that the deal does include a pay increase.

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