An investigation is being launched by BC Ambulance Services into why Castlegar was left without ambulance coverage Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, according to BCAS Central Kootenay Superintendent Chris Mason. He also said the investigation will also encompass the fact that Castlegar first responders (fire crews) weren’t notified of the coverage gap until 5:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve – just half an hour before Castlegar ambulance coverage came to a holiday halt.
“I can assure the public that this will be dealt with,” Mason said. “People need to feel confident that when they call 9-1-1, help will arrive.”
Mason said BCAS was aware of staffing issues in our area, and contingency plans were in place.
“We’re trying to figure out why contingency plans didn’t work,” he said, assuring residents that the situation is not the status quo, and is unacceptable by BCAS patient care standards. “That’s all being investigated right now, to find out what happened and why … and to ensure it never happens again.”
Castlegar fire chief Gerry Rempel said he paged a 10-man crew on Christmas Eve, a crew that served as first responders to five motor vehicle accidents on Christmas Day alone. Ambulances were dispatched from Rossland, Nelson and Trail. One such call ended in a 35-minute wait for an ambulance to arrive. Fire crews are not allowed to transport patients to hospital.
“We’re not certified to transport, and certainly there’s a difference in the training levels (between volunteer firefighters and paramedics),” he said. “An ambulance is also better-equipped than us, because of the higher level of training.”
Rempel had nothing but praise for the volunteer crew that ensured the city had emergency coverage over the weekend.
“They want to help, and the way they see it, there’s no better time to help people than on Christmas,” he said.
Mason was unable to comment on what reaction the City of Castlegar can expect when they send an invoice to BCAS for the expenses incurred by the Castlegar Fire Department over the holiday.
As it stands, Castlegar has one full-time unit chief and 20 part-time paramedics (but Mason said that number fluctuates).
Part-timers are paid different rates for different kinds of duty shifts: to be on call means carrying a pager, but being allowed to respond from home - that pays $2 an hour. To be at 'Foxtrot status" means being physically at the station, but not having to do any work unless called out, in which case the pay is $11.21 and does not count towards pension. If called out on Christmas Day, while on Foxtrot status, part-timers would receive what's called "super-stat" pay, which is double-time-and-a-half at the full paramedic pay rate.
Part-timers submit their availability for shifts, and a schedule is created from that, whereas full-timers are not allowed to choose which days they work.
When asked why BCAS doesn't merely elevate one or two of the 20 part-timers to full-time status, Mason said this:
"As with any complex problem, there's a number of reasons we're where we're at," he said. "If there was a magic bullet, we would have found it by now and used it."
He pointed out that they have a budget to work within, and staffing needs fluctuate according to times of year and call volume.