Volunteer firefighters risk burnout propping up ailing ambulance service

·4 min read

Quadra Island’s volunteer firefighters are regularly called out to drive the community’s ambulance because there aren’t enough paramedics available to respond to medical emergencies.

Covering the gaps in ambulance service threatens patient safety, risks burning out firefighters and limits the department’s response to blazes during the height of wildfire season, said Fire Chief Sharon Clandening Tuesday.

“In the 28 years I’ve been doing this job, it’s never been this bad,” Clandening said of the BC Emergency Health Services staffing crisis, adding the situation isn’t sustainable.

Two paramedics are needed to crew an ambulance and care for a patient, but on at least 15 occasions, firefighters have driven the ambulance for a single paramedic since May, she said.

In the past week alone, the department responded to nine calls for a mix of brush fires and medical emergencies.

And three or four of those calls needed a firefighter to drive an ambulance so a single paramedic could attend, Clandeningsaid.

Additionally, there were about four days in August and a couple in July when there was no ambulance in service at all on Quadra.

It’s one thing to have days when only a single paramedic is available, Clandening said.

But to have no BC Emergency Health Services staff on island to respond to medical calls was unheard of in the ferry-dependent community that relies on 24/7 coverage, she added.

It strains resources — particularly the six firefighters with the licence necessary to drive an ambulance — but the fire department has worked with the Quadra Island paramedic unit to cover shifts without BC Emergency Health Services staff, Clandening said.

The department isn’t willing to risk the lives of the island’s 2,700 residents by not filling in to make sure people get to hospital, she said.

Firefighters acting as ambulance drivers are tied up for longer periods than on regular medical calls because they must stay with the ambulance and paramedic until the patient can be transported off-island to nearby Campbell River.

When there are no paramedics available during the day, an ambulance can be called from Campbell River, although that means a delay in care to patients, Clandening said.

But the scenarios with the greatest risk and poorest response times are medical calls at night without any BC Emergency Health Services staff on shift, said Clandening.

“When that ferry stops running, we cannot call on Campbell River to send us an ambulance,” she said.

In that situation, a firefighter must go get the ambulance and drive it to the dock to pick up paramedics arriving via water taxi from Campbell River before driving them to the patient, who then needs to be assessed before transport off-island

“It’s at least a two-hour response,” Clandening said.

“That’s quite a delay in getting patients to the hospital for that better form of care.”

And on nights with one paramedic on duty dealing with less serious cases, firefighters can end up driving ambulances that have to wait hours for the first ferry sailing in the morning.

“We don’t want them to wait all night long with a patient because people still have to get up and go to work,” she said.

The paramedics working on Quadra are excellent but there aren’t enough members, especially with summer vacation and COVID-19 thinning the ranks, which include four FT positions and a couple of casual on-call positions, Clandening said.

“There's not enough people and if there’s a full-time station, pay them more money and give us more full-time personnel,” she said.

The Quadra Island firefighters are not the only department under stress because of the staffing crisis, Clandening said, adding Gabriola Island’s fire department is facing a similar situation.

The worry is additional pressures on volunteer firefighters could lead to attrition and recruiting difficulties, she said.

“We’re happy to help, and it has to be done,” Clandening said.

“I’m just concerned, like the other fire departments, about burnout for my people.”

BC Emergency Health Services did not respond to questions or interview requests before Canada’s National Observer’s publishing deadline.

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer