Station 525 in McBride staffs two ambulances. Sometimes, equipment needs to be transferred to a third ‘car’ (ambulance) that will be onsite while a regular ‘car’ (ambulance) is undergoing maintenance. /ANDREA ARNOLD

By Andrea Arnold

BC paramedics know that they can be called at any time to “cross cover” in a neighbouring community. It is the way the system works, and has been working for many years.

A statement from BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) explains: “When paramedic crews are not available, or out of their service area for a patient response or transfer, BCEHS implements a system called “cross-covering” whereby other crews in the region cover for that area. On the occasion when a paramedic is not available for a shift BCEHS either works to backfill the shift or assigns another crew to ‘cross cover.’”

In the same correspondence, they state that “McBride paramedics are, on occasion, asked to cross-cover the Prince George area. McBride is usually not a first choice, given the distance. Closer paramedic crews include Vanderhoof, Bear Lake and from Quesnel.”

But sources say that in the last eight months or so, McBride has been called to cover night shift (usually) in Prince George an average of two nights a week. In more recent weeks, crews have been spending more time in Valemount as well.

Ambulance Paramedic Union Provincial President Troy Clifford says that pulling crews for cross coverage was not meant to be a long-term solution.

“Prince George has had a significant staffing shortfall resulting in pulling crews from McBride,” he said. “This is causing added pressure on the paramedics.”

Part of the issue is McBride-based paramedics have developed a balance between their normal day jobs and being on call: most members of the McBride crew have commitments through the day that are flexible if a call comes in; and a night shift in McBride does not automatically mean that paramedics are working all night. A night shift in Prince George varies greatly from most nights coverage in McBride, where calls are rare and those paramedics on call can be asleep at home until needed. The Prince George cross-cover calls don’t come in until after 6:00pm so the paramedics have to adjust very quickly to the idea of being up all night, as they make the 2-hour drive to Prince George for a busy shift.

A Prince George paramedic that has worked alongside some of the crews from McBride commented that he and the others only have good things to say.

“My heart goes out to them,” he said. “These paramedics care about McBride and these shifts take them away from that. They have had to deal with winter road conditions and nights away from home. We all worry about them, especially in the winter. They do calls all night then back on the road home in the morning.”

Because the calls don’t come in until about 6:00pm, in wintertime the drive to and from PG is done in the dark, in all sorts of road conditions.

Steven Burns, CUPE 873 Regional Vice President, says the full-time and on-call schedule gets built a month in advance for each station. Once the schedule is created on the 20th, vacancies can be filled internally, or by paramedics who happen to be visiting the area.

During the lead up to shift time, the day of, vacant shifts can be picked up by part-time employees. This means, the need for cross coverage isn’t known until the last minute.

Both Burns and Clifford would like to see this addressed by BCEHS somehow.

“Out-of-town crews benefit from a heads-up,” said Burns, speaking as a paramedic with on-car experience. “Make a schedule deadline so they (incoming crews) can be prepared.”

This would allow paramedics time to arrange for some sleep in the afternoon to prepare for the night, for instance.

Crews from McBride are not always able to respond to the call for cross-coverage. McBride has two cars available, and ideally four paramedics on call 24 hours a day. If one car is already on a call, or due to circumstances only one car is staffed, then paramedics in another community are asked to cover. A source commended the crew from Station 525 (McBride) on continuing to make every attempt to fully staff their cars, even though they know that could likely include a trip to Prince George. The source did mention that Fraser Lake is another one that has been diligent about being available for out-of-town calls.

Crews commended

The crews traveling from McBride have been very well received and some of those they have encountered during their Prince George adventures have been impressed by their smiles, attitudes and professionalism.
“I haven’t heard complaining coming from the 525 crew about the extra work and hours. They are spoken highly of and professional,” said Burns.

The paramedics from 525 have provided exemplary service under tough conditions with great attitudes.
“McBride Paramedics truly are community-based paramedics. They show a tremendous commitment to community,” said Clifford.

Fellow paramedics commented on how great the 525 crew is with patients as well.

One patient, Nancy, went as far as to thank McBride paramedics Andre and Willy on the Hell Ya Prince George Facebook page after they picked her up one night.

“They worked well together,” she said. “They had a sense of humour, they worked quickly, knew their stuff and were, most importantly, kind and caring. Just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They came into the hospital with another person a few hours later and they even stopped to say ‘Hi.’ Amazing young men.”

Province-wide problem
Shorthanded coverage is not a regional issue, but a province-wide problem.

“There are recruitment challenges,” said Clifford. “There needs to be a meaningful wage to recruit, allowing for long-term sustainability.”

Plans are being made to help alleviate some of the pressure put on crews that have been covering in Prince George.
“BC Ambulance is making adjustments to scheduling, placing one of the previously labeled ‘day’ shift cars to night shift, along with its staff,” said Burns. “Also, they are converting on-call positions in Prince George to full-time positions, requiring two day, two night shift rotations.”

Hopefully, the changes that are being made will soon relieve some of the added stress on the McBride crew and other stations that are cross covering more than usual across the province.