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Lack of full-time ambulance paramedics puts Gabriola residents at risk, say firefighters

Twice this past weekend a firefighter had to drive an ambulance because a paramedic was not available, says Gabriola's fire chief.
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Will Sprogis, left, and Kitt Stringer of the Gabriola Volunteer Fire Department. SUBMITTED

Gabriola’s fire chief is calling on the province for full-time staffing of the local ambulance station, saying the situation of firefighters driving ambulances is untenable and a risk to public safety.

Will Sprogis is speaking out about the need for an around-the-clock service after two instances this past weekend in which a firefighter had to drive an ambulance because a paramedic was not available.

“We foresee ourselves either at a fire providing fire suppression or rescue and we won’t have we won’t have any members available to go drive the ambulance and potentially a patient is going to perish,” Sprogis said.

“And vice versa — the firefighter could end up on a medical call and we have a big fire or wildfire break out and we’ll need all personnel on deck and we’ll find that our member is now driving the ambulance and going across to Nanaimo potentially and tied up for several hours.”

In a full-time standard staffing scenario, there would be eight paramedics working in pairs on 12-hour shifts, four days on and four days off, with an additional ninth full-time position as a spare. When they have a patient, one paramedic drives while the other is in the back providing care.

On Gabriola, ambulance paramedics work 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. They are on call 16 hours at $2 an hour under what’s called a scheduled-on-call model. If they attend an overnight call, they can’t work the next day shift.

Often, only one paramedic is available to show up on a call, leaving firefighters who are also responding to decide whether to drive the ambulance — in some cases onto the ferry to Nanaimo to the closest hospital — or remain available in case of a fire or a medical emergency. 

Kitt Stringer, training officer for the Gabriola Volunteer Fire Department, said he faced this very dilemma last month when responding to an incident. Firefighters arrived, followed by a lone ambulance paramedic.

One of the firefighters drove the ambulance, but there was no ambulance crew from Nanaimo to take over the transfer at the ferry, meaning the firefighter could either travel to Nanaimo or wait several hours for an ambulance to come over.

“As the incident commander in that situation, I have to decide which is the greater risk: having the ambulance completely out of service for multiple hours, or … sending a firefighter off island for one hour.”

It’s not a “one-off incident,” Stringer said, noting it there was a similar situation the previous day. “I don’t think driving an ambulance that much is really in the scope for what we should be doing.”

B.C. Emergency Health Services says it has asked Gabriola firefighter first responders for their assistance as drivers 17 times since Jan. 1, 2022.

Fire suppression is the department’s primary focus, but Sprogis said they are happy to support the ambulance service “when we have resources available. We just feel now those resources are getting drained.”

“We’ve been lucky that we haven’t been in the position where they have no ambulance, no paramedics at the station,” Sprogis said. “It’s going to happen eventually, where one morning they just don’t have anyone there and there won’t even be an ambulance available.”

Troy Clifford, provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. union, said the current situation is “unacceptable.”

“It’s an unacceptable situation for the citizens of Gabriola because they aren’t guaranteed timely ambulance service transportation at their time of need,” Clifford said.

“We really need a full-time, 24-hour ambulance in Gabriola — that would address all the issues,” he said. “The scheduled on-call model is just not meeting its objectives and it’s just not meeting the needs of the community.”

The Health Ministry announced last year it was converting 24 rural ambulance stations to around-the-clock operations and funding 85 new full-time paramedics and 30 full-time dispatchers. Gabriola was not one of them, but BCEHS said it has added four permanent paramedic positions on the island, bringing the total to six, along with a second ambulance.

Clifford said there are about 20 to 30 rural communities in the province are in the same situation as Gabriola. The concern throughout the province is that “you’re going to end up losing volunteer firefighters,” he said.

Volunteer firefighters didn’t sign up or train to be ambulance paramedics and shouldn’t be pressured by the “moral obligation,” he said. In the current model, “you’re going to end up depleting the resources in two separate jobs.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com