BEFORE CHRIST. The provincial health worker ordered firefighters to respond only to the most lethal medical calls, as a final measure to limit the possibility of transmission of COVID-19 between first responders and the public.
The implementation of the first responder dispatch protocol aims to minimize the risks for non-paramedical first responders while also limiting the amount of personal protective equipment used, according to Dr. Bonnie Henry, who announced the new measure on Tuesday 31 March.
Personal protective equipment includes n95 face masks or screens, medical grade gloves and gowns.
“During a pandemic, when we know that personal protective equipment is so important to our health care workers and our paramedics, we want to avoid exposing as many first responders as possible,” said Henry.
With many calls to 911, dispatchers will usually send both a paramedic and a firefighter to the incident. Until further notice, firefighters will now only respond to calls coded in purple – which are the most urgent calls, usually determined by the fact that a person is not breathing. There are exceptions, for example if the police or firefighters need help or if the paramedics are unable to respond within a certain time, or about 20 minutes.
Similar measures were taken during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.
Firefighters in larger communities have spent much of the past four years helping paramedics respond to overdose calls, serving on the front lines of British Columbia’s first provincial health emergency – and still ongoing.
In 2019, 24,166 overdose-related calls were made to 911 in British Columbia, an average of 66 calls per day, according to data from BC Emergency Health Services.
Since these calls are often referred to as red color coded calls in the automated computer dispatch system, concerns have been expressed that this new protocol may delay response times to overdoses, particularly in Vancouver, where a lion’s share of fatal overdoses has occurred.
On Saturday April 4, Henry explained that the change was the result of discussions with BC EHS, paramedics and fire departments and concerns about ensuring the safety of all first responders.
“This reflects the reality on the ground that we want paramedics to be available for these calls and that we want to make sure that everyone who is on the calls that is needed has the personal protective equipment they need,” a she reiterated, adding that there is an ambulance station in the Downtown Eastside capable of answering calls coded in red.
Meanwhile, other emergency events such as car accidents have apparently subsided while people stay close to their homes, added Henry.
Health Minister Adrian Dix says while HealthLink BC staff reduced wait time on the non-emergency 811 line to one minute or less, paramedics handled far more flu-related calls than usually.
On March 23, BC EHS responded to 331 of these calls. On March 30, paramedics responded to a total of 1,333 calls, including 294 regarding flu-like symptoms.
The normal average is 1,540 calls.
Health officials have urged anyone experiencing COVID-19-related symptoms, including fever, dry cough or fatigue, to call 811 or use the online assessment tool. Anyone experiencing breathing difficulties is advised to call 911.
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