Each day, up to 40 per cent of scheduled paramedic positions in British Columbia are unfilled due to burnout, injuries and unfilled job vacancies, CTV News Vancouver has learned.
The remaining workers are struggling with an even heavier workload, contributing to long wait times for 911 and ambulance service and further contributing to the fatigue of a frontline service already exhausted by years of increasing call volumes, which have spiked during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing 20, 30, 40 per cent of our ambulances not staffed because of not enough paramedics, and we’re seeing that same number in dispatch – in fact it’s worse,” said Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of B.C.
“Paramedics in the same sense know they’re going to be going from call to call to call and know that when they arrive on a Friday night, they know that we’re already going to be down 30 per cent of our ambulances or whatever close to that number.”
Robert Parkinson, the union’s health and wellness director, describes it as a serious decision when a paramedic gives in to burnout, exhaustion and physical or mental injuries, because they know it’ll leave the rest of their colleagues shouldering a greater burden and lead to longer wait times for patients.
“You start combining lower staff levels and higher demand and that creates an issue and you see the last little while with the pandemic, it actually hit us to the core,” said Parkinson. “We really need (more) supports to be brought into place and into the framework because hiring more people just means we’re going to continue to injure more people.”
A DIFFICULT JOB MADE EVEN HARDER DUE TO COVID-19
CTV News has spent several weeks speaking with numerous paramedics in different communities performing various functions. They all emphasized their dedication to their patients and desire to help others, but also expressed frustration with many of the decisions being made on how to run B.C.’s ambulance service; all felt their hard work was underappreciated by senior staff.
The workers – ranging from part-time and relatively new to decades-long veterans of emergency medical care – also want the public to understand there’s much more to their job than driving patients to hospital in an ambulance. They say they essentially now bring the emergency department and the medical care directly to patients.
“You could start with multiple overdoses where people are literally right on the cusp of death to delivering a baby 15 minutes later, to a horrific car accident right after that, to dealing with someone who’s in their final stage of life in a palliative scenario, to a kid that wiped out on his skateboard and needs a Band-Aid,” said advanced care paramedic Ian Tait.
He echoed the remarks of other paramedics, who described the increase in mental health and overdose calls in recent years wearing down an understaffed frontline, a situation made worse by the pandemic and the safety protocols and infection fears that came with attending calls for patients having trouble breathing.
“One of the sort of jokes we say is the last 18 months has been the longest 10 years of our career,” said Tait, emphasizing that each call is different and requires quick thinking and special training.
“It drains you mentally, let alone physically, after the days and the weeks and the months and the years go by, and that is a significant challenge for us.”
SUPPORTS AVAILABLE, BUT NOT ENOUGH
There are 4,400 ambulance paramedics and dispatchers in B.C. Those on the phone are trained specifically to help in medical situations where they can’t see the patient and have to talk a civilian through the best way to help, often while watching more calls pile up on the phone lines without knowing whether a life-or-death circumstance is on hold.
The clinical paramedics who staff ambulances face the risks of hands-on care, with a very intimate perspective on the traumatic injuries, health issues and human tragedies connected to them. A third of the staff are currently receiving support for mental health issues, but have to wait 90 days to process a claim with WorkSafeBC.
“(COVID-19) hit a workforce that’s been damaged for a long time,” said Parkinson. “Usually, it’s at the end of a pandemic when health-care workers start to see the effects psychologically. Well, this is a prolonged event like none we’ve seen, going on to year two and all these influences are taking a toll.”
Some of the paramedics and call-takers who struggled to meet skyrocketing demand during the heat dome mass casualty event in late June are so traumatized by what they saw and experienced, they haven’t returned to work yet.
Clifford is advocating for a greater recognition and understanding of the fallout from a job that is as challenging as it is rewarding for those who answer the call.
“Doing this job changes you – some say you can’t do the job for a period of time and not get injured in some way,” he said. “Everyone deserves to go home safe and healthy, but that’s not happening for all our paramedics and dispatchers.”
This is the third part of a CTV News Vancouver series examining British Columbia’s pre-hospital care system.
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