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Tri-City firefighters will now only respond to most serious medical calls

‘We are writing history right now,’ says firefighters’ union president Gord Ditchburn of Port Coquitlam

Fire departments across the Tri-Cities will be scaling back their responses to medical calls after the province dropped them from the BC Ambulance call triaging system for all but the most serious medical emergencies.

The order, which was announced by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry March 31 and enacted overnight, means firefighters will only be called to immediately life-threatening calls, such as cardiac arrest, asphyxiation and car accidents where paramedics can’t remove a patient. 

According to the BC Ambulance’s colour-coded call-triaging matrix, anything not categorized in the most acute category — known as a purple call — will be handled by ambulance paramedics. That means fire departments in Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam will rarely respond to calls about patients suffering from fractures, falls or burns, seizures or diabetic emergencies.

Firefighters will also still be brought in for difficult to reach patients, like in the case of high-angle or water rescues, and pulling people out of confined spaces, such as a car accident.

As of May, B.C. Emergency Health Services classifies 911 calls using a colour-coding system. - B.C.
Since May 2018, B.C. Emergency Health Services has classified 911 calls using a colour-coding system. - B.C. Emergency Health Services

In an email from BC Emergency Health Services, spokesperson Sarah Morris said the changes are being made to maintain a reliable supply of personal protective equipment (known as PPE) for health care workers, which includes paramedics. Morris said the new guidelines will not change the way the BC Ambulance Service operates. Firefighters, she added, would still be called to some red-coded calls (time-critical medical emergencies) if paramedics are expected to be delayed by more than 20 minutes.

Still, as the province takes measures to stem the transmission of the COVID-19, the implications of scaling back fire and rescue teams could be deadly in other ways, especially when B.C. paramedics are swamped with calls reporting COVID-19-like symptoms.

Port Moody Fire and Rescue Chief Ron Coulson, while not criticizing the latest provincial order, did note that in 2016 (the latest data he has), Port Moody recorded the slowest ambulance response time in the Lower Mainland in the immediately life-threatening or time critical (red) and the urgent/potentially serious (orange) categories — both of which the fire department will no longer regularly attend.

“We have the utmost respect for Dr. Henry,” said Coulson. “Of course we’re going to do our part.” 

But he added: “We’re in a unique spot in the Lower Mainland. It’s no fault of the ambulance personnel — the resources are just not there.”

This is not the first measure changing the way firefighters respond to medical emergencies during the pandemic. Fire departments across the Tri-Cities have been receiving daily “clinical” updates as health officials adjust protocols for first responders.

Just last week, for example, fire departments were told to change up their CPR procedures. When firefighters put a breathing bag on a patient, they usually feed the device 15 litres of oxygen per minute to ensure the patient gets enough air even if their airway is obstructed.

But under those volumes, Coquitlam Deputy Fire Chief Rod Gill said, the breathing bag’s vent sends pressurized air laden with possibly infected droplets into the surrounding area, creating a potential to infect anyone around the patient. Thus, firefighters have now dropped oxygen levels to six litres per minute.

In an interview with the president of BC Professional Fire Fighters — the organization that represents more than 4,000 smoke-eaters across the province — president Gord Ditchburn of Port Coquitlam said they, like the rest of British Columbians, are putting their trust in health officials on how to best respond to the outbreak.

“That’s trusting the judgement of Dr. Henry. It’s an ever-changing landscape, changing by the day, by the hour,” he said. “We are writing history right now.”

While firefighters train for disasters regularly, Ditchburn said nobody was anticipating the speed with which the virus has spread. Only a few weeks ago, many were looking to go away for a few weeks over spring break.

“I don’t think anybody was prepared for what we face today, and what we’ll face tomorrow,” he said, adding that whatever comes next, firefighters will do what’s necessary.

“We will never not respond when asked to.”