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Greater Victoria has some of the fastest ambulance response times in BC—but they're trending up

Only five Greater Victoria municipalities are meeting the benchmark response times for life-or-death emergencies

By Jolene Rudisuela
August 27, 2022
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Greater Victoria has some of the fastest ambulance response times in BC—but they're trending up

Only five Greater Victoria municipalities are meeting the benchmark response times for life-or-death emergencies

Photo: Zachary Keimig via Unsplash
Photo: Zachary Keimig via Unsplash
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Greater Victoria has some of the fastest ambulance response times in BC—but they're trending up

Only five Greater Victoria municipalities are meeting the benchmark response times for life-or-death emergencies

By Jolene Rudisuela
August 27, 2022
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Greater Victoria has some of the fastest ambulance response times in BC—but they're trending up
Photo: Zachary Keimig via Unsplash

In a life-threatening emergency like a heart attack, ambulances should respond in eight minutes and 59 seconds or less—or at least that’s the national benchmark. In Greater Victoria, only five of the 13 municipalities have ambulance response times within that time limit, while others lag crucial minutes behind. Even still, Greater Victoria remains one of the regions in BC with the fastest overall ambulance response times.

Data on ambulance response times from every municipality in the province, obtained by the Fraser Valley Current, show that often British Columbians are waiting longer than that benchmark for paramedics to arrive, and in most cases, those wait times get longer with every passing year.

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Locally, the City of Victoria has the fastest median response times in Greater Victoria, with ambulances arriving to purple and red calls (i.e. life-threatening calls like cardiac arrests) in about seven minutes and 18 seconds—within the nine-minute target. Sidney, Langford, Saanich, and Esquimalt also meet the benchmark, while all other municipalities have response times that are too slow. Metchosin has the slowest response times out of the bunch, taking more than two times longer than in Victoria.


Troy Clifford, the president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC, says the data shows that Victoria’s response times are good, but it's important to remember these are just median times. That means that half the calls were faster and half were slower than the numbers provided by the BC Emergency Health Services. 

Last July, when the province announced funding to improve response times, the Minister of Health stated the goal of getting 90% of red and purple calls below nine minutes. So far, that goal’s still not being met.

“So, they’re still not doing great compared to the national benchmarks,” he said. “They’re pushing those numbers … and nine minutes is already a long time to wait for somebody in cardiac arrest.”

The time it takes for ambulances to respond to emergencies has also increased across nearly all Greater Victoria municipalities in the past five years. Central Saanich, which has some of the longest response times in the region, has seen those times lengthen by nearly 20% between 2018 and 2021. Highlands and Metchosin, each with the worst response times in the region, are the only municipalities that have actually seen improvement in that time.


Each year, on average, ambulance call volumes increased across the province and in Greater Victoria specifically by a modest 6%. Life-or-death calls, however, increased by 11% locally between 2020 and 2021. 

Life-or-death calls (red and purple calls) are rightly prioritized over all else, but an increase in these calls could boost response times for other urgent and non-urgent calls. In Victoria, the median response time for a non-urgent call reached 17 minutes in 2021—a 23% increase from five years ago, despite the number of non-urgent calls actually dropping during that time. 

Clifford said the jump is putting increasing pressures on resources, and in Greater Victoria in particular, an increase in calls means that resources are being pulled from the smaller surrounding communities, delaying the response times in those areas. 

“The larger centres where the tertiary hospitals are, they pull from the outlying areas. Sooke and the peninsula up to Sidney and Central Saanich, those all get pulled into higher call volume areas like Victoria. So that’s delaying the response times in those outlying areas, for sure.”

That’s one of the benefits of the system, he says, that ambulances can be moved around when there are spikes in volume. But when this becomes the norm and larger centres begin relying on ambulances from outlying areas, that’s when it becomes a problem. 

Earlier this year, Sooke first responders began raising alarms about their paramedics being frequently called to respond outside the municipality. In March, Sooke firefighters told CTV that 55 to 60% of their workload has become medical calls to make up for the lack of ambulance crews.

Rural communities facing longer response times

In some rural municipalities on the Island further from large centres, the response times are even longer.

Port Renfrew in 2021, for example, had response times that were more than double the national benchmark for code purples and reds. Over on the west coast of the Island, Tofino fared only slightly better with a median time of just over 17 minutes for life-threatening calls. 

Recently, the Gabriola Island fire chief, Will Sprogis raised alarms when firefighters were pulled in to drive an ambulance when paramedics weren’t available. He told the Times Colonist that this becoming a trend would be detrimental to public safety.

On Gabriola, and in other rural areas across the Island, the scheduled-on-call model is the norm, where paramedics work eight hour shifts and stay on call for 16 hours, earning $2 for each on-call hour they aren't responding to an emergency. If they respond to a call during their on-call hours, they can’t work the next day. This model is in place in regions where the call volume is smaller, but Clifford says it is contributing to issues of long response times.

Currently, there are about 1,000 vacant paramedic positions across the province, meaning there are many ambulances that can’t be staffed. Clifford says one of the big reasons there are so many vacancies is because the precarious scheduled-on-call pay model leads to recruitment and retention problems. 

“The biggest reason for that is the disparity in wages between us and our partners in public safety, like police and fire and nursing and health professionals,” he said. “That’s a gap that’s progressed over many years and it needs to be addressed because it’s hurting our ability to recruit now.”

He adds that better mental health and wellness supports are needed to ensure paramedics are ready and able to respond when someone calls 911.

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