- Fraser Valley Current
- Ambulances in Langley & Delta take 5+ minutes longer than in Victoria
Ambulances in Langley & Delta take 5+ minutes longer than in Victoria
A sprained ankle in Penticton is likely to generate a quicker response from paramedics than a heart attack in Langley.
That is one of the insights revealed in new data on BC’s troubled ambulance system obtained by the Current. For the second year running, Langley again has the second-slowest response times among larger communities in BC. The figures also confirm that British Columbians are waiting significantly longer than five years ago. And they reveal major geographic disparities between how quickly paramedics get to people in need of help.
In many parts of the Lower Mainland, ambulances take five minutes longer to get to a life-or-death situation than in Victoria or the Okanagan.
The troubles have received significant attention the last year, following the collapse of BC’s ambulance system during the heat dome. But the data shows that problems are long-standing and, in many cases, pre-date the COVID pandemic.
In Langley, for instance, ambulances have been taking longer to get to patients each year since 2018. Ambulances are quicker in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Mission—but even in those communities they are taking longer each year and fail to meet the nine-minute provincial target for life-or-death calls. And BCEHS admits that response times are set to be even higher this year.
The figures, which you can examine in depth below, also show that response times to non-life-threatening calls have increased particularly dramatically over the last year. In many communities, responses to calls for urgent and potentially serious issues like abdominal pain have increased by as much as 30%. And responses to non-urgent calls now take more than half an hour in many places
Longest response times
Earlier this year, The Current requested and obtained the median response times for ambulances in each BC community over the last five years. (The Current undertook a similar task last year.)
The figures show that BC’s ambulance system has faced its most severe struggles in Vancouver’s suburbs, including Langley, Delta, Burnaby, and most other communities in the region. Along with Langley, the 10 large communities with the slowest urgent response times were all located in Metro Vancouver. Ambulances failed to meet their yearly target in every sizable Lower Mainland community (we have focused in this story on communities with more than 5,000 calls last year) .
In most of those communities, response times were at least 10% slower in 2021 compared to 2020. But of all of them, Delta was, by far, the slowest. Its ambulances took nearly 14 minutes to get to patients in desperate need of help. That’s nearly twice as long as ambulances in Victoria.
The data suggest BC’s ambulance system is having a particularly difficult time getting to patients in fragmented suburban communities. Langley, Delta, and Coquitlam—three of the four communities with the slowest times—all have multiple urban centres. Langley and Delta are very large, while Coquitlam has major traffic challenges.
BC’s ambulance service performed much better in the Interior and on Vancouver Island. Ambulances hit their nine-minute annual target in all but one location outside the Lower Mainland.
Ian Tate, the communications director for the union that represents paramedics in BC (the Ambulance Paramedics of BC), says the problems reflect systematic and widespread staffing issues.
“Because of the staffing crisis, there are a lot of ambulances sitting empty,” said Tate, who also works as a paramedic in Chilliwack. Of dozens of new ambulances added by the province many remain off the road because BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) has been unable to hire enough paramedics to staff them, Tate said.
That’s particularly true in the Lower Mainland.
After years of increasing response times, BC’s government seems to have now largely accepted that it needs more paramedics. Last year, after the disastrous system-wide overload that occurred during the heat dome, the government overhauled the BC EHS leadership.
In the email in which BCEHS released the data to The Current, a spokesperson said the toxic drug crisis and last year’s emergencies contributed to the increased number of calls. The email, from May, said the service added hundreds of new paramedic positions over the last year and that “many” had been filled.
But follow-up questions netted an admission by the BCEHS that response times in Langley, Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Burnaby—the four communities The Current asked about—are all trending higher this year than last year. The new hires haven’t been enough to stop recurring ambulance and paramedic shortages across the province this summer.
Ambulances are in service only about 79 per cent of the time, the BCEHS said.
That’s on average.
“There are many days where Langley has had 50%/75% of their ambulances sitting empty,” Tate, the union representative, said. “What happens is they use surrounding communities to try to backfill. So last weekend, Mission had no ambulances staffed on Sunday. They would normally bring in ambulances from Abbotsford or from Maple Ridge [but] Abbotsford that day only had 30% of its ambulances up, Maple Ridge only had half of their ambulances up.”
He continued: “We are at the point now where the staffing crisis is so severe that we can’t even move chess pieces around like we would normally when there were small pockets of staffing problems. Now it’s so widespread that we can’t rob Peter to pay Paul anymore.”
Tate said the service is also losing paramedics to fire departments and police services that pay far better. Many paramedics are also suffering from mental health issues related to the trauma.
Ambulance response times in the Fraser Valley east of Langley still were poor, even if they weren’t the worst in southwest BC. Response times in Mission, Chilliwack, and Abbotsford all fell short of their targets, and were all slower than a year prior.
But response times there didn’t collapse the same way they did in other parts of the Lower Mainland.
The total number of calls for paramedics only rose modestly—about 6% in the largest communities. But the number of life-or-death calls spiked by a remarkable 22%. In some communities, like Abbotsford, paramedics fielded upwards of 30% more urgent calls than the year before.
In Delta and Burnaby, two of the communities with the slowest ambulances, the total number of calls actually declined.
A higher proportion of more-serious calls could suggest that, faced with less-responsive ambulances, people without life-threatening issues declined to call 911. It could also suggest that certain types of calls are being categorized (or treated) as life-or-death when, previously, they were not.
Whatever the case, the data show that, faced with slower response times, dispatchers deprioritized less-urgent calls. That led to a dramatic increase in how long it took ambulances to get to people who needed help, but who would probably survive. In Vancouver, for example, response times to non-urgent calls increased by 67%, to a median of more than 37 minutes.
In other places, though, such calls still triggered a relatively quick response by paramedics. In Abbotsford and Chilliwack, even non-urgent calls often generated a response within 18 minutes. In mid-sized cities on Vancouver Island and in the Interior, paramedics got to such cases in less than 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, the quickest response times were found in Victoria (which Tate pointed out is also home to the BCEHS headquarters). There, ambulances get to most people at risk of death in an average of just 7 minutes and 18 seconds—more than five minutes quicker than in Langley and six minutes and 39 seconds quicker than Delta.
The data reflects median times, meaning half of all responses were quicker and half were slower. That means that the data is not skewed by a relatively small sample size of extremely long response times (say, during last year’s heat dome). Instead, it reflects the middle of an entire year’s worth of calls.
Tate said better wages and benefits are needed both to retain existing workers, and to attract new recruits who are comparing life as paramedic to other similar careers.
But he added that money is not the only part of the equation.
“We need more mental health and wellness supports, we need better deployment models,” he said. “We have a huge amount of paramedics working 24/7 to keep ambulances staffed … to make sure there’s an ambulance available when someone calls 911. Our biggest fear is that we’re not going to be able to continue to do that unless things change.”