BCEHS struggles to explain alert level and morale issues after deadly heat wave

One of the top officials at B.C. Emergency Health Services couldn’t explain why the agency didn’t raise its internal response to the deadly heat wave until after the most extreme temperatures had passed, as internal memos reveal staff are being offered significant incentives to work overtime this weekend.

Several paramedics have provided the internal email offering "compensation for overtime shifts at double time rates" from 6 p.m. Friday until the end of the night shift Sunday in order to improve response times, which was not offered last weekend when the forecast called for temperatures 20 degrees above the seasonal average for much of B.C.

Hundreds of people died from the extreme heat, with police referring to the spate of sudden deaths as “unprecedented casualties.” One man died in a fire hall driveway after waiting hours for an ambulance.

Sources told CTV News that frontline ambulance paramedics and mid-level managers urged executives to implement their version of an internal state of emergency (which comes in the form of activating an emergency operations centre) as sudden deaths began rising last weekend and they were inundated with calls for people struggling with heat-related health issues.

“We were really focused on staffing, being able to support staff at the front line and putting additional resources into our dispatch centres and we stood up our Emergency Operations Centre 24-7 on Tuesday,” said Darlene MacKinnon, chief operating officer of B.C. Emergency Health Services. “Everything we could do, we did, we had the powers and the support we needed to do everything in our power and I think it’s just important to note these are unprecedented times.”

When CTV News pressed MacKinnon as to why they didn’t stand up the EOC until after the heat wave had started subsiding, she insisted they did their best, and between the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid crisis and heat dome, “it’s an unprecedented time and there’s challenges across the entire system related to that unprecedented volumes and heat and demand.”

Mackinnon cited the collective agreement for preventing a call for “all hands on deck” in the wake of the extreme heat warning and forecast.

ONGOING ISSUES COMING TO A HEAD

Several paramedics have spoken to CTV News on condition of anonymity describing a dysfunctional workplace where BCEHS executives have little comprehension of their duties, stressors and supports required.

Unstaffed ambulances and long wait times have been an issue for months, but the problem came under the spotlight again in June, on the first day of Step 2 of B.C.’s reopening plan.

“It’s a perfect storm and we’re really concerned about our staffing and workload impact,” warned Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 873 president Troy Clifford last month, as paramedics burned out by the opioid crisis and COVID-19 safety measures were slammed by record calls for help as isolated British Columbians started emerging from their homes.

Even the senior provincial executive director of patient care communications and planning for B.C. Emergency Health Services acknowledged the staff shortages were so significant, he urged the public to be extra careful and avoid injury because help could be late in coming.

Clifford described a toxic workplace, which frontline paramedics have confirmed and are now increasingly speaking out about on social media and other public forums.

BLAMING THE MEDIA, WITHOUT A PLAN TO ADDRESS MORALE

MacKinnon repeatedly praised the hard work of paramedics when explaining the long wait times during the heat wave, and offered “sympathy and our apologies for any delays from our part” to members of the public who’d faced long waits for ambulances.

The same day she made those comments, the interim CEO and the executive vice-president of clinical service delivery co-signed a letter to all BCEHS employees lauding their hard work and seeming to insinuate the media was holding frontline workers responsible for staff shortages and delays in service.

“We reach out to you today to acknowledge your work, your unwavering commitment to patients, the impact of service in two public health emergencies, the recent heat wave and now the devastating fire in Lytton,” wrote David Byres and Susan Wannameker. “Despite what the headlines may say, we have confidence in the BC Emergency Health Services team. The work you do takes courage and we are tremendously proud of what you do and how you support one another.”

But when CTV News asked MacKinnon how the agency would address what paramedics describe as a crisis of morale, and if there was a plan to deal with a number considering quitting – particularly after feeling dismissed and ignored when warning about the spike in sudden deaths – she didn’t answer directly.

“Our focus is on supporting staff. Our staff at EHS as well as staff across the system are feeling challenged right now coming out of a very long pandemic and now being faced by this heat wave,” she said. “It’s unprecedented, it’s a challenge. We are here to support our staff, we are incredibly proud of our staff, and we have our emergency operations centre open 24-7.”

MacKinnon added nearly 400 job postings at BC Emergency Health Services were slated to go up July 2.