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Lower Mainland politicians say ambulances changes download costs on cities

VANCOUVER - A group representing 33 local British Columbia governments say changes made by the B.C. Ambulance Service are straining municipal resources because paramedic responses are now too slow.

Members of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, which represents local governments from Hope to Squamish unanimously passed a resolution calling on the province to develop a patient-centred emergency response service provided by fire, rescue services and the B.C. Ambulance Service.

The ambulance service recently downgraded its response to 39 types of calls, dropping them from emergency to routine, saying that would ensure the most severe cases get priority.

Ambulances drive with lights and sirens on during emergency calls, but leave them off during routine responses.

Chuck Puchmayr, the president of the association, says the New Westminster fire department told him paramedics are sluggish to respond to potentially serious cases such as heart problems, head injuries and breathing issues.

Puchmayr says that first responders, often firefighters, are forced to arrive on scene and "babysit" patients for lengthy amounts of time before ambulances arrive.

He says this drains municipal first responder resources and puts patients in danger.

"We're actually seeing now ambulances not even getting to the scenes of serious medical emergencies where the firefighters are asking for an upgrade in response," said Puchmayr. "People are finding their way to the hospital on their own."

He says the association will continue to approach the province to address the issue now that the motion has been passed.

The agency that oversees the B.C. Ambulance Service likened recent criticisms levelled against its changes to paramedic response protocols to trusting politicians with emergency surgery.

"You wouldn't have a city councillor tell you how to do surgery in an operating room," said Dr. William Dick of B.C. Emergency Health Services. "You wouldn't have Mr. Puchmayr in an emergency department telling the doctors how to run the emergency department."

"At the end of the day, I know we're right," said Dick. "There's an agenda here that does not make sense."

He says cases are rare where ambulances take excess amounts of time to get to the scene.

He says on average, the new response protocol has lowered response times to serious incidents by one minute while increasing response times to non-serious cases by six minutes.

It allows the patients who need the help the most to get it first, he said.

Furthermore, first responders aren't obligated to attend calls that dispatchers have designated as non-serious, he said.

The reason why some first responders still attend non-serious calls is because they haven't adapted to the new ambulance protocol, he said.

"Some people get it, and some people — they don't," Dick said.

Bronwyn Barter, who speaks for the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., says the new response protocol allows paramedics to reach patients in serious condition faster, but that can cause patients with non-serious injuries to suffer.

"The person who has a fractured hip lying on the sidewalk shouldn't have to suffer more," said Barter. "Basically we've robbed Peter to pay Paul over here."

Furthermore, response delays could cause a non-serious condition to turn into a serious one, she said.

An independent report from a former paramedic and expert on emergency care says B.C. Ambulance's response changes patients' needs are being met and B.C. is a leader among emergency medical service systems.

However, first responders from various municipalities continue to complain the new protocol is making patients wait too long.

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