Greg Nesteroff/Nelson Star
If you have a medical emergency in the Kootenays, it’s best to be in Creston, judging by statistics from the BC Ambulance Service.
In 2012, Creston’s average response time to Code 3 calls — requiring lights and sirens — was nine minutes and 20 seconds, better than Cranbrook (10:01), Nelson (11:06), Castlegar (10:42), Trail (11:16), or Grand Forks (12:30).
However, all were slower than the nine-minute standard suggested by the US Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services, a benchmark reached by only ten communities in the province last year.
Creston also posted the fastest times in the region in 2010 and 2011.
The figures, obtained through a freedom of information request by former air ambulance pilot Hans Dysarsz, surprised rural Creston regional district director Larry Binks, a retired BC Ambulance administrator.
“Under ten minutes is good,” he said. “It comes down to staffing: if a station isn’t staffed properly, response time is going to be poor. We recognize we live in rural areas and won’t get the same response times [as in urban centres] but certainly deserve better than what is happening in some cases.”
Creston achieved its response times despite only having one full-time paramedic and 13 part-timers. By comparison, Nelson has seven full-timers and 33 part-timers, Trail four full-timers and 27 part-timers, Castlegar one full-timer and 27 part-timers, and Grand Forks one full-timer and 14 part-timers. (Part time employees submit their availability and shifts are staffed accordingly.)
Binks, who worked for the ambulance service from 1974-2006, and Castlegar mayor Lawrence Chernoff have been advocating for improvements. Response times could be faster if all stations were manned full-time, Binks said, but attendants have to be adequately compensated, rather than a standby pittance.
Chernoff, who retired in 2006 after 29 years as a paramedic, suggested the service isn’t as good as it used to be, and one reason is training.
“That’s been identified as a key issue. In the past BC Ambulance trained you. Now you pay for it yourself. If you invest $5,000 and work in a small-volume station, you’re never going to get that money back.”
Chernoff and Binks met with BC Ambulance management this month at the Union of BC Municipalities conference, although Chernoff said previous talks were “frustrating … It’s moving too slow for us. We’ve met with probably everybody in BC Ambulance.”
BC Ambulance spokeswoman Kelsie Carwithen said response times aren’t determined solely by staffing — other factors include weather, terrain, roads, traffic, and geography. Responses in rural and remote areas are generally longer due to the distances involved, she said.
Carwithen also said the nine-minute standard is only a target that applies to urgent calls in metropolitan and urban areas — but one they do try to achieve.
“Response time figures are not based on the time it takes to have a trained emergency medical responder reach a patient; they only reflect the response time of paramedics,” she said. “First responders can arrival on scene before paramedics and begin providing care.”
Carwithen said the ambulance service is looking at ways of doing business differently and has already made several improvements including implementing an automated vehicle location system that lets dispatchers see where ambulances are in relation to the incident, and adopting computer-aided systems to maximize efficiency and better relay information to crews.