The lack of regular ambulance service in southern Haida Gwaii is reaching a crisis level.

Ambulance service in southern Haida Gwaii reaching crisis level

The B.C. Ambulance Service's failure to meet needs of rural and remote communities received province-wide attention last week.

The B.C. Ambulance Service’s failure to meet needs of rural and remote communities received province-wide attention last week following the passing of a Skidegate man who waited an hour for an ambulance to arrive.

The family of Godfrey Williams, a 48-year-old Skidegate band councillor, quickly called for an ambulance after he had suffered a heart attack on Aug. 2.

While the nearest ambulance station was only 10 minutes away in Queen Charlotte City, one of the two paramedics scheduled for that particular shift had booked the day off.

Linda Lupini, executive vice-president of the Provincial Health Services Authority and B.C. Emergency Health Services, said when the call arrived there was only one responder on-call who didn’t have the training required to operate the ambulance. Lupini said preliminary information shows the paramedic was on scene in about 11 minutes to administer CPR, however it wasn’t enough. Williams passed away shortly after an ambulance arrived.

“I express my deepest condolences on behalf B.C. Emergency Health Services [board], our management team and paramedics on the unfortunate passing of Godfrey Williams. This is not the outcome we work so hard for, and it is a heartbreaking tragedy,” she said.

Like many on Haida Gwaii, Queen Charlotte Mayor Carol Kulesha was outraged by the incident. Kulesha has been calling for changes to the B.C. Ambulance Service since 2011, after the community lost a longtime volunteer who had covered most of the empty on-call shifts.

Despite two recruitments being made earlier this year, Kulesha said there continues to be ongoing coverage gaps in the community’s ambulance schedule, mainly during the daytime.

Kulesha attributes this to volunteer staff being paid $2 per hour on standby wages, with paramedics having to find additional income to survive.

“I am eternally grateful for those who have put their hand up to serve. But for $2 an hour they still have to go get jobs,” she said.

“You can’t expect this to be a volunteer-run organization. You need to pay some sort of basic wage.”

Lupini said the B.C. Ambulance Service is constantly trying to recruit on-call staff and said limited resources prevents the service from having full-time paramedics at all stations in the province.

“Historically having volunteers on call in the community worked … That is not the case anymore,” she said.

“We do have to redesign how we deliver emergency medical services in rural and remote communities.”

To do this, the B.C. Ministry of Health has approved adding 80 full-time paramedics with the enhanced training in rural and remote communities over the next five years.

The B.C. Ambulance Service has committed to short and long-term solutions that will be put in place to prevent more tragic incidents from occurring. Lupini said short-term solutions will come from a working group that will be established immediately.

“This may involve shifting resources looking at a different type of position that could provide more availability and shift patterns,” she explained.

For a long term solution, Lupini said the agency is looking to implement “community paramedicine” positions that would have paramedics work on their training while providing other services in communities, such as working in health clinics.

“We have to create the plan, create the additional training and decide what other kinds of services they could provide, but I think that’s a good long term solution,” Lupini said.