When his son went head-first into the boards during a hockey game on McArthur Island in February, Jeff Freeze sprung into action.
It looked like a spinal injury. Precautions were taken and 911 was called.
Freeze, a Kamloops firefighter who worked previously as a paramedic, knew what to do thanks to his training. What he wasn’t prepared for was the wait.
“It seemed like 20 minutes and no one showed up,” Freeze told KTW.
If the incident took place a year earlier, firefighters would have likely been on scene within four minutes. But, as of last June, a change in BC Emergency Health Services’ (BCEHS) response model means firefighters were not notified of the call — one that would have previously been routine.
According to KFR statistics, fire crews would have been on scene at McArthur Island Sports Centre within four minutes.
According to B.C. Emergency Health Services, an ambulance was at the arena 12 minutes after the 911 call reporting the injury to Freeze’s son.
Freeze’s son’s injuries were not serious. But, he said, they could have been.
“My concern was why isn’t a 16-year-old with a potential spinal cord injury a call that fire would respond to?” Freeze said, noting he called Kamloops Fire Rescue’s dispatch later to find out if firefighters were tied up with something more serious.
They were not and they had no way of finding out about the injuries to Freeze’s son because of the way the call was coded by the BC Ambulance Service.
“We are trained for that,” he said. “We are ready for it. But we didn’t even know about it.”
Freeze is concerned the move to change dispatch procedure was a political one — a decision that is putting lives at risk in communities across B.C.
According to Freeze, BC Ambulance changed its coding to get more vehicles on the road. He speculated the service wants its call volume to increase to demonstrate a need for greater funding.
“I used to be a paramedic. I get both sides — I’m 110 per cent for BC Ambulance getting more funding,” he said.
“Now, because they want the call volume to go up, all the calls that used to go to us don’t. Ambulance calls go through the roof, but KFR doesn’t get the call volume we used to get. The general public is not getting the service they would have a year ago.”
Freeze said the issue has become one of life and death.
“Provincially, and even in town, there have been heart attacks where BC Ambulance will not call the fire department to come help. My No. 1 concern is that when you pick up the phone and call 911 and you need help, like I did for my son, they held back care.”
Freeze is not alone in his frustration.
According to the head of the union that represents municipal firefighters in B.C., the issue is one impacting firehalls across the province.
Gord Ditchburn, president of the BC Professional Firefighters Association, told KTW fire crews want to be able to respond to as many calls as possible.
“The concern is you have the public waiting exponentially longer for a response than they would normally,” he said.
“If you’ve got a firehall blocks away from someone who is injured, why not send firefighters who are trained to at least triage? Coupled with that is the ambulance paramedics are woefully resourced. They’re struggling to keep up with the calls they go to.
“Paramedics are under-resourced and firefighters can respond. At the end of the day, we’re all just looking after the public and we’re all funded by the same person — the person who calls us when they need help.”
Neil Lilley, head of patient care for BC Emergency Health Services, said the new dispatch model was implemented last spring after a review that included a look at best practices around the world and input from a number of doctors and nurses.
“The purpose was to ensure we are responding to the sickest patients as quickly as possible,”
he said. “We wanted to ensure we’re not over-resourcing patients who had not-so-severe injuries. We’re now dispatching just one resource where before there would have been two resources [paramedics and firefighters] arriving within minutes of each other.”
Lilley downplayed concerns from firefighters, noting they still play a crucial role in responding to the most severe medical calls.
The new dispatch model, he said, ensures fire crews will be free when they are needed.
“We really appreciate the partnership with the fire services,” he said. “They really to play a critical role. We really need them to be able to respond to those most critical calls.”
KFR responded to 4,070 medical calls in 2017. Last year, that number dropped to 3,278.
When asked by KTW, Kamloops Fire Rescue Chief Mike Adams said he is reluctant to offer any comment that could be seen as critical of BC Ambulance.
“BC Ambulance Service changed the way they dispatch in June of last year,” he said.
“Whenever we receive a call from 911, our response times are usually under four minutes. We have a standard. We have seen a decrease to our call volumes in and around 20 per cent. With regard to potential outcomes, you’d have to talk to BC Ambulance.”
Lilley said BCEHS is committed to reviewing its response model every six months. If changes are needed, he said, they will be made.
“We do monitor patient outcomes,” he said. “We’re now responding to those critical patients faster than before.”
Lilley said B.C. leads all Canadian provinces in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survival rates, though he stopped short of directly linking that to the new response model.
“We are getting to the higher-acuity patients quicker,” he said.
Adams said first responders — fire, police and paramedics — work co-operatively while on scene at calls, regardless of how those calls are dispatched.
“I don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat with other first responders,” he said. “Locally, we have a fantastic relationship with BC Ambulance Service and RCMP. We meet on a regular basis.”
According to Lilley, co-operation is key among first responders — a factor noted in a February report from B.C.’s auditor general, calling on BCEHS to improve co-ordination with fire services.
“We’re working hard with our partners in fire services,” he said. “We really do value their responses to those higher-acuity calls. They really do make a difference.”