Seconds Count - 9-1-1 workersThe B.C. government’s report to the chief coroner on last summer’s heat-related deaths is an important first step in identifying preventive measures to help save lives, but effective response to such events in the future will ultimately depend on a greater commitment by the agencies that fund emergency response, say the Ambulance Paramedics of BC (APBC) and the Emergency Communication Professionals of BC (EPBC).

The June 7 report, Extreme Heat and Human Mortality: A Review of Heat-Related Deaths in B.C. in Summer 2021, highlights some of the challenges that 9-1-1 call takers, dispatchers, ambulance paramedics, and medical dispatchers and call takers faced during the heat dome.

APBC (CUPE 873) paramedics, emergency medical call takers and dispatchers experienced some of the most difficult conditions they have ever seen. “We welcome the recommendations and measures brought forward. This report speaks to those that tragically lost their lives, so anything we can do for public awareness education to ensure we can save lives is critical,” said CUPE 873 President Troy Clifford. “We also need to ensure that our Emergency services and BCEHS are prepared and have response capacity should we see these events again.”

Clifford said that APBC continues to work with Government to ensure the highest quality of care and transport paramedic services for B.C. citizens regardless of the situation. “I am so proud of how our 4,500 members have continued to be there for patients, providing critical services in every corner of this province despite our staffing shortages,” he said.

For ECPBC (CUPE 8911) members working at E-Comm, the report’s findings confirm their on-the-ground experience with an agency that continues to struggle with staffing shortages. “Current company policy advises 9-1-1 call takers to drop calls for ambulances and move on to the next one, leaving members of the public on hold until the BC Ambulance Service picks up their call,” says CUPE 8911 Vice-President Sheldon Miller, noting that previously the dispatcher would wait with the caller on the line until the BCEHS came on, making sure they weren’t alone.

“Disconnecting with a caller increases the risk to the public. If you put someone on hold their situation could change while they’re alone, so there’s a greater chance that the caller will not receive the help they need.” Miller said that staff shortages need to be addressed because events such as the heat dome—which, at its peak, produced nearly 12,000 calls in a single day—are causing a mental health crisis for B.C.’s emergency response professionals.

“Excessive call volumes have led to an uncommonly high number of stress leaves and people seeking work elsewhere,” he said, “but despite these challenges our members continue to provide excellent service to British Columbians.”