You & Me BC
December 5th, 2021
2021 was one of the toughest years, for one of the toughest jobs in BC. While many didn't see it coming, the province's paramedics had sounded alarm bells well in advance.
“Society wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of what happened”
Paramedics have a difficult job. They’re called on the worst day of people’s lives, and are expected to step up and face tremendous challenges when everyone else runs away.
That’s all part of the profession.
But there was something different about this year. Even by the unrelenting standards of BC’s first responders, 2021 has been a grueling year that pushed many past their breaking point.
Amidst the pandemic and ongoing opioid crisis, which left the province’s health care system and paramedics already stretched beyond their limits, the heat dome engulfed BC, producing record high temperatures and an accompanying rise in heat-related deaths and illness.
Then the forest fires hit, scorching BC’s interior, razing entire towns - such as Lytton - and forcing thousands of evacuations as flames and smoke encroached on residential areas.
While call volume for paramedics has steadily increased over the past few years, to roughly 1400-1500 a day, they exploded this summer to over 2000 per day.
Call volume for paramedics exploded this summer, from 1400-1500 a day to over 2000 per day
More people than ever needed BC’s paramedics and assumed they’d be there when called upon, only for no one to arrive; the system and the people in it, through no fault of their own, were overwhelmed.
For many British Columbians it seemed like the shortage came out of nowhere, but not for the men and women on the frontlines.
“We’ve had a staffing concern for quite a while and call volume’s increased as the population’s grown, says Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of BC.
“We’d been sounding the alarm, but nothing got done.”
In fact, so little got done that there weren’t enough paramedics to staff all the ambulances in the province this summer; 25 percent of ambulances in the Lower Mainland went unused due to the lack of available paramedics.
While framed as a public health crisis, one that jeopardizes the health and safety of British Columbians calling for help, the impact it’s had on paramedics themselves has been devastating.
DID YOU KNOW? The earliest record of an ambulance was a hammock-based cart built around 900 AD by the Anglo-Saxons
Mental Stressors – The Worst Day of Peoples' Lives
“They go until they break”
Bob Parkinson, mental health specialist with Ambulance Paramedics of BC, acknowledges that stress is inherent to the position.
“There are stressors on the scene which will always be part of the job. The immediate threats to paramedics and their safety; weapons, agitated persons, the unknown of what will be waiting for them with each call.”
“There’s seeing major injuries and death up close, and knowing the feeling of losing someone whose life is in your hands.”
But Parkinson says it’s been the growing operational pressures of the job which are weighing heaviest on BC’s paramedics.
“With low staffing levels there’s now no time to recuperate between calls. Every time we get a call, there’s another one waiting, and another after that. It’s call after call, 14-hour days without sleep or rest.
“Paramedics are the type of people who give everything they have, and they go until they break.”
Parkinson’s right. Roughly 30 percent of paramedics are on leave for mental health issues or receiving therapy for psychological injury, up from only 9 percent a year ago.
Roughly 30 percent of paramedics are on leave for mental health issues of receiving therapy for psychological injury
Divorce rates and substance abuse are high among paramedics as well; talking through a rough day with over drinks with colleagues has become common coping mechanism.
And many don’t notice the problem until it’s gotten hold of them.
“Paramedics themselves don’t see changes at first as they progress. It’s family, friends who see it. It gets to a point where paramedics are gradually more comfortable in a stressor environment than they are at home.”
What can be done to prevent this?
More for Mental Health
What Parkinson wants to see is greater commitment to stopping these problems before they arise.
“If people are making WorkSafe claims for mental health, they’re already injured; we need to be able to get ahead of the game and proactively treat mental health.”
“We get only $100 a year in mental health benefits, and that gets you nowhere. It would be really nice if all first responders had something like $5000 dollars a year for psychologists and other mental health support.”
Staffing also remains a big concern.
“We’ve been struggling to recruit in remote communities. In many of these areas the paramedics are only paid $2 an hour to be ready on call while they’re out in the community. It deters people from joining and isn’t a sustainable model.”
Troy Clifford (left) and Bob Parkinson (right)
The provincial government recently announced that they will be hiring more paramedics throughout the province, a much-needed boon that will address some of the issues caused by staffing shortages.
Parkinson's happy about the move, but says there’s a lot more work to be done.
“I think it's a very positive step forward. We have needed increases in staffing and program funding since 2010 and governmental supports have gone the opposite way until the current government was elected.”
“Unfortunately, it’s a big hole that was created over the last 10 years and we have a lot of catching up to do. “
This summer highlighted the tremendous value that paramedics have on the frontlines. When we let them down, we’re also letting down British Columbians who look to them in time of need.
Ensuring that our communities are safe and can effectively respond to crisis means being there for the paramedics who are there for us.
Learn more by visiting the Ambulance Paramedics of BC
To get in touch with Spencer van Vloten, editor of You & Me BC, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org