B.C. firefighters have been directed by the provincial health officer to only respond to the most life-threatening medical calls, in the latest move to limit the possibility of COVID-19 transmission between first responders and the public.
The implementation of the first responder dispatch protocol is to minimize risk to non-paramedic first responders while also limiting the amount of personal protective equipment being used, according to Dr. Bonnie Henry, who announced the new measure on Tuesday (March 31).
Personal protective equipment includes n95 face masks or face shields, medical-grade gloves and gowns.
“During a pandemic, when we know that personal protective equipment is so important for our health-care workers and for our paramedics, we want to avoid exposing as many first responders as possible,” Henry said.
With many calls to 911, dispatchers will usually dispatch both a paramedic and a firefighter to the incident. Until further notice, firefighters will now only respond to purple colour-coded calls – which are the most urgent calls, typically determined by if a person is not breathing. There are exceptions, such as if backup is needed by police or fire crews or if paramedics are unable to respond within a certain time frame, or roughly 20 minutes.
Similar measures were taken during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.
Firefighters in larger communities have spent much of the last four years assisting paramedics in responding to overdose calls, serving on the front lines of B.C.’s first – and still ongoing – provincial health emergency.
In 2019, there were 24,166 overdose-related calls made to 911 across B.C., an average of 66 calls each day, according to BC Emergency Health Services data.
Because those calls often are designated as red colour-coded calls within the computer-automated dispatch system, concerns have been raised that this new protocol could cause delays in response times to overdoses, especially in Vancouver where a lion’s share of fatal overdoses have occurred.
On Saturday (April 4), Henry explained that the change derived from discussions with BC EHS, paramedics and fire services and concerns of ensuring the safety of all first responders.
“It reflects the reality on the ground that we want the paramedics to be available for these calls and we want to ensure that everybody who’s at the calls that are needed have the personal protective equipment that they need,” she reiterated, adding that there is an ambulance station in the Downtown Eastside able to respond to red colour-coded calls.
Meanwhile, other emergency events such as car crashes have seemingly lessened as people remain close to home, Henry added.
According to Health Minister Adrian Dix, as HealthLink BC staff have worked call wait times on the 811 non-emergency line down to one minute or less, paramedics have been dealing with many more influenza-related calls than usual.
On March 23, BC EHS responded to 331 such calls. On March 30, paramedics responded 1,333 overall calls, with 294 of those regarding influenza-like symptoms.
The normal average is 1,540 calls.
Health officials have urged anyone who is feeling symptoms related to COVID-19, including a fever, dry cough or fatigue, to call 811 or use the online assessment tool. Anyone feeling difficulty breathing is advised to call 911.