'Significant risk to public safety': Warnings and desperation in weeks before B.C. heat dome tragedy

A trove of internal documents from B.C.'s biggest 911 dispatch service revealed senior executives tried to raise the alarm about paramedic shortages ahead of this summer's deadly heat dome.

A freedom of information request from the BC Liberals unearthed the emails, which range from early June to early July and include discussions between executives and senior leadership at E-Comm 911 who discussed critical staffing shortages at the B.C. Emergency Health Services that were impacting their own operations.

"(B.C. Ambulance Service) is compromising public safety overall by negatively impacting 911 call answer ability due to delays with BCAS call answer," wrote Suzanne Halliday, executive director of data, analytics and decision support on June 3.

The sentiment and warnings are echoed and then intensified after the heat dome began smothering British Columbia in record-breaking temperatures, with nearly 600 people dying as a result.

“Since our last update to the board during Thursday’s meeting, the significant risk to public safety posed by call-answer delays in transferring 911 calls for the ambulance service to BCEHS, has significantly worsened,” wrote Oliver Grüter-Andrew, president and CEO of E-Comm 911 to the board of directors on June 29, after the heat dome was in full swing. "At the very busiest moments of the day, BCEHS’ ability to accept our calls is being fully exhausted.”

The next day, one executive raised the possibility of holding a press conference to get the government’s attention to staff the ambulance service to levels that could meet demand that had been steadily increasing for many months.

MONTHS LATER, NO CLEAR ANSWER

As the temperatures were subsiding, CTV News asked one of the top executives at the ambulance service why they hadn’t escalated their internal response to the heat dome until days after it started and regional health authorities had issued a warning and level of alarm due to the incoming temperatures.

“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,” said BCEHS chief operating officer Darlene Mackinnon on July 2. She could not explain why they didn’t staff up until after mass casualties had been logged for several days.

Similarly, when grilled by the official opposition on Tuesday, the health minister had no explanation as to why the warnings of the 911 dispatch service had evidently gone unheeded.

“This government had a warning and the time period that the emails reference were 12 months where call volumes were increasing at unprecedented rates,” said Liberal leader Shirley Bond. “The emails obtained under FOI make it clear that the crisis in 911 dispatch and the ambulance services were ignored by the government in the months leading up to the heat wave.”

She posed the questions to the premier, but it was the health minister who responded to questioning on the matter, pointing out there were record-breaking call volumes that week during an unprecedented heat event, reiterating investments the New Democrats have made since coming into power.

"There are extraordinary challenges facing our ambulance system and health-care system today because of two public health emergencies and we're responding with more resources, more ambulance paramedics, more ambulances, more air ambulances and more dispatchers," said Adrian Dix in the legislature. “We responded by significantly increasing resources to the ambulance service in 2018, in 2019, in 2020 and now in 2021 to deal with the situation we dealt with at those times and to see a significant increase in service."

In British Columbia, most 911 calls go to centralized call centres operated by E-Comm 911, where a dispatcher sends the call to the appropriate agency (police, fire or ambulance). Long delays on hold waiting for an operator to pick up are blamed on BCEHS, which has acknowledged a shortage of ambulance paramedics and dispatchers combined with a surge in call volumes that has resulted in long delays.

DOCUMENTS SUGGEST A DISTRACTED GOVERNMENT

The premier came under blistering criticism for dismissive comments he made about heat dome fatalities, later apologizing for his remarks, but the opposition revealed that some of the most dire warnings came on the very day John Horgan made those remarks.

“These FOI documents show deep concern,” said Liberal MLA Karin Kirkpatrick in the legislature, pointing to Gruter-Andrew’s dire warnings of crippling staffing shortages impacting public safety on June 30. “This was the very day the premier was giddy and said fatalities were 'part of life,’ and ‘People need to take personal responsibility.’"

Horgan walked back those remarks later that day on social media, and a week later he admitted he was “giddy” to announce the lifting of multiple pandemic restrictions as part of B.C.’s summer reopening plan.

The same day he acknowledged his government was distracted by loosening pandemic restrictions as opposed to warnings from health agencies and meteorologists, the provincial health officer acknowledged the typical response to a very atypical weather event was “not sufficient." The public safety minister held a press conference outlining the risks and measures undertaken to minimize further heat-related deaths after the temperatures had begun subsiding and the “mass casualties” had ended.

British Columbia recorded roughly triple the deaths of Oregon and Washington state, which saw similar conditions and temperatures from the same heat dome phenomenon.