Houston’s ambulance station is to shift to coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week as part of a province-wide move to improve service in more rural and remote areas.
The July 14 announcement by health minister Adrian Dix outlined plans for 24/7 coverage for six rural ambulance stations by this fall and 16 more next year but it isn’t yet known how Houston fits in with that schedule.
The news followed concerns here and in Burns Lake and in other smaller communities that another system called scheduled-on-call, which was about to be introduced to smaller stations, would actually reduce service and response time.
Scheduled-on-call would have the benefit of having paramedics assigned regular shifts and full pay where they would be at the ambulance station for eight hours a day and on call for the remaining 16 hours a day over a three-day rotation.
But because they would not be physically at the station for 16 hours a day, there are worries about a longer response time when called out.
And in Houston, there was a particular concern about the potential impact on the medical call out duties of the Houston Volunteer Fire Department.
“In this context, the fire department may be paged for more calls which may put more pressure on the unit,” a briefing note to the District of Houston council states.
“There are times now that the fire department is on calls and needs to wait for an ambulance to come from Smithers, Granisle or Burns Lake.”
Information from the health ministry indicates what’s called 24/7 Alpha staffing “will have paramedics at the ambulance station (or in the ambulance with their partner) 24 hours, seven days a week.”
“BC Emergency Health Services is currently in the process of determining which stations will move forward first with the conversion to Alpha staffing.”
With the planned shift to 24/7 coverage, what that also means for staffing levels at the Houston station isn’t know yet either. Dix also announced 85 full-time paramedics will be hired.
The province said senior officials will work with the union representing paramedics regarding staffing and “will have more to say soon”.
As it is, Houston has 14 paramedics available for call outs and two community paramedics who concentrate on home visits and community activities. The station has two ambulances and one community paramedic vehicle.
“During the 2020-21 fiscal year, Houston had 483 paramedic responses,” indicates information from BC Emergency Health Services.
“The bulk of those responses (close to 80 per cent) were in Houston. Paramedic responses were also made in the surrounding area, including Smithers, Burns Lake, Topley and Rose Lake.”
The issue of scheduled-on-call was sufficient for the District of Houston council to add it to the list of issues to raise with senior provincial officials this fall at the annual Union of BC Municipalities convention.
In general, the scheduled-on-call system of paid shifts of eight hours at the station and 16 hours away is meant to provide a stable income for paramedics in hopes of attracting people to consider it as a career in smaller and more rural locations.
With the planned conversion to 24/7 coverage in Houston, the scheduled-on-call system planned for here has been shelved.
The Burns Lake station will also shift to 24/7 coverage while the Granisle station will shift to scheduled-on-call.
For Granisle that means “providing one part-time regularly scheduled paramedic position to the station in addition to the current .67 full-time equivalent community paramedic with community 911 response support as needed by on-call staffing,” the health ministry added.