B.C. heat wave leads to 11-hour ambulance wait time, spike in sudden deaths

‘We’re experiencing probably the busiest 48 hours we’ve had on record,’ says Vancouver Assistant Fire ChiefJun 29, 2021 3:52 PM By:  Stefan Labbé

Ambulance Paramedics of BC says wait times for ambulances have shot up during the current heat wave, leading to crisis-level wait times.APBC photo

[Excerpts] A heat wave paralyzing huge swaths of British Columbia has stretched emergency services in several municipalities to the brink — in one case, Vancouver firefighters have waited 11 hours for an ambulance crew to arrive and transport an elderly person suffering heat exhaustion to the hospital. 

Just before noon Tuesday, firefighters were still waiting.

“We’re experiencing probably the busiest 48 hours we’ve had on record,” says Assistant Chief Ken Gemmill at Vancouver Fire Rescue Services. VFRS later confirmed it’s seeing a three-fold increase in call volume over the last few days.

The night before, Gemmill says the department had every vehicle out of the department’s fire halls and on-call, with most of the demand driven by people suffering heat illnesses. 

While an 11-hour-and-counting wait is an extreme, on many other calls firefighters waited for an ambulance for over six hours, says Gemmill. 

The waits have been so long many residents have showed up at fire stations across Vancouver begging for first responders to attend to their loved ones. 

“I know that the public is getting frustrated. I know with this extreme heat there’s not enough personnel to go around,” says Gemmill. “We’re experiencing some desperate measures by our citizens for sure.” 

‘INCREDIBLE CRISIS’

BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) has seen a 25 to 50 per cent spike in ambulance dispatches across the province over the last several days, says Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia.

Clifford, who leads the union representing paramedics, says pressure has been building on ambulance crews for months. When the heat wave hit, he says staffing shortages of up to 25 per cent combined with a spike in demand. 

“There are hundreds of calls waiting to be dispatched right now,” he says. “What we’re facing is an incredible crisis.” 

It’s a crisis Clifford says could have been mitigated had BCEHS planned for what climate scientists have been saying all along — that hotter, drier summers would become the new normal. 

LAG TIME MEANS MORE TO COME

The rising human toll of the current heat wave comes on the heels of a staggering number of temperature records stretching across the Pacific Northwest and into the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

By Tuesday morning, 51 communities in B.C. had broken heat records over the last several days — including in Lytton, a town that as of Monday carries Canada’s all-time temperature record of 47.9 C. 

Drought conditions have been building across much of western North America for months now. But the latest heat wave is something else: a heat dome usually sitting on top of the U.S. southwest has expanded northward with unprecedented intensity and duration.

That all lines up with climate change models, which show B.C. suffering deepening summer drought conditions and searing temperatures, with winters dominated by more extreme rainfall events.

“There’s already a baseline to 1.2 degrees warming since the Industrial Revolution,” says Armel Castellan, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada.

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