Stewart’s ongoing ambulance services issue came to a head this week with the resignation of two part-time BC Ambulance paramedics—one citing a lack of support from BC Ambulance for remote communities.
The two departures leave a single part-time paramedic who may or may not be available depending on their work schedule, and three part-time drivers.
According to unit chief paramedic Cindy Ellwood who resigned July 30, this means no coverage for the long weekend.
“Yeah, it’s a crisis situation… we are shut down because I am not working. They said it’s the long weekend, they can’t get anyone to come up here because everyone is busy,” Ellwood said.
Chief operating officer of BC Ambulance Les Fisher said that for this long weekend an air emergency crew is ready in Prince Rupert and ambulance support from Kitwanga which is 213 kilometres south of Stewart.
“If we can’t get the local coverage that we would normally rely on the closest by ground for something that isn’t urgent would be Kitwanga. If there is an urgent issue, there would be a crew from Prince Rupert by helicopter” Fisher said.
Cindy Ellwood said she decided to resign due to the pressure put on her by recurrent service gaps.
“I can’t wait around for another ambulance coming from three-and-a-half or four hours away and watch someone die. It’s not in me to do that. I didn’t join the ambulance for that,” she said.
According to Stewart’s deputy mayor Patty Lynn the service problem isn’t new, and the community has been getting by anyway they can.
“There was a woman who fell in front of a hotel. The hotel called 911. They said there is no ambulance service, they are up north, we will send them from Hazelton – that’s three and a half hours away,” she said. “They called the hospital. One of the nurses came down and one of the doctors showed. A local company ran to their first-aid ambulance truck and grabbed a backboard … they put her in the back of their pick-up and took her to the hospital.”
According to Lynn, call volume to emergency centres is on the rise due to booming development in the region, which means the hospitals deal with more patients coming in from nearby worksites, a challenge she acknowledges other remote communities face around the province.
“It’s come to a head because the north is growing. Terrace is busy. So is Stewart. Very busy. We have a power project, the transmission line, mining, exploration, tourism, american traffic up Highway 37 to Fairbanks. Between us and Dease Lake we service the whole area down to Cranberry. The callouts are increasing.”
In terms of a longer term solution BC Ambulance’s Fisher said BC Ambulance is trying to recruit people “who want to come out and really support their community and look after their neighbours” and is putting on an emergency responder course in September in Stewart.
But while the challenge of providing consistent ambulance service in this town of 500 has been noted, an immediate fix remains elusive.
“It’s not a matter of being paid more,” Ellwood said. “I did it more as a community service. I wouldn’t have stayed there for 11 years making ten to fourteen thousand a year otherwise. I worked every day.”
The part-time ambulance staff are paid $2 an hour to be on call, and then get a higher hourly wage during action. Ellwood said she was also paid for eight hours administrative work a week but that she ended up working far more hours than that. She took a stress leave this winter because of the pressure and needed more support in her capacity as unit chief.
“I knew this was coming. I knew this summer was coming and I was wondering if they would send people up to help me out,” Ellwood said.
On July 18 MLA Doug Donaldson addressed the issue formally with a hand-delivered letter to Minister of Health Terry Lake.
“I am asking that you use the resources of your offices to contact the mayor, the hospital, and appropriate authorities,” Donaldson wrote, “to reach an immediate solution to the lack of ambulance service in the next five days and to work with them on a longer-term solution to this issue that I think you would agree is unacceptable.”
The BC Ambulance press release from the same day said that, “Six part-time employees provide 24/7 coverage for the community. BC Ambulance Service (BCAS) receives approximately 99 calls for service each year in Stewart. Of these, about 30 require an emergency ‘lights and siren’ response.”
“BCAS is taking steps to ensure the community of Stewart continues to receive consistent ambulance service.”
The release said that BC Ambulance is actively recruiting staff to service the area.
Deputy mayor Patty Lynn said that when BC Ambulance official Peter Thorpe visited Stewart this week for a meeting with local officials he suggested looking for new part-time staff who are either retired or in other stay-at-home living situations.
According to both Ellwood and Lynn this is problematic because of the low unemployment rate, meaning that people wouldn’t be available, and the obligations that these groups have to other aspects of their lives.
The application process is long, said Lynn, and the age limit for drivers is 65, which means eligible candidates don’t qualify.
“I told BC Ambulance they have to streamline their application,” Lynn said.