Waters: Kelowna needs more ambulances

A growing number of first-response medical calls are taking a toll on the city's fire department

Just before Christmas, as Kelowna city council was getting ready to set its 2018 provisional budget, it was told a large percentage of the calls the city’s fire department has to deal with are medical first-responses. And that is having an effect on the fire department’s resources.

The news wasn’t speculation. It came from a consultant hired specifically to look at the operation of the fire department and how its resources are currently being used.

The pronouncement had a number of councillors openly opine that maybe now is the time for Kelowna to raise its voice and call for more ambulance resources in the city. Such a move can’t come soon enough.

Currently, Kelowna—which is one of the fastest growing communities in the country—has just five ambulances stationed here to deal with not only the regular and growing needs of a mid-sized city, but also of a large and growing seniors’ population and an opioid overdose crisis that is spiraling out of control.

While many could be forgiven for thinking there are plenty of ambulances available here, they would be wrong. Given the regional nature of health care and the fact Kelowna has become a regional centre for health—especially with with additions to Kelowna General Hospital of a cancer centre and the cardiac care centre—the ambulances stationed in the city, as well as those in West Kelowna and Lake Country, have basically become interchangeable. So it may appear there are plenty on the road.

But that does not mean the three ambulances stationed in Lake Country and the three in West Kelowna during the day are always available. At night, only one ambulance is available in each of those communities and at other times they are being used to transfer patients to other areas farther away, including the south and north Okanagan.

As a result, the fire departments in all three communities become the first line of response in many cases.

News Kelowna city council is willing to lobby for more ambulances here will no doubt be welcomed by both the ambulance service and the fire department, as it would help both. But is the province, under the new NDP government, willing to reverse the “stand-pat” position of the previous government when it comes to making such a move?

First-response firefighters are very well-trained and equipped to do the job they are tasked with. But, they will be the first to tell you, they are not ambulance paramedics, and not equipped to—in the words of one paramedic I talked to—”bring the emergency room to you.”

Still, they are an invaluable resource for someone sitting in their living room, or out on the street, that suddenly needs medical assistance.

But, as the city’s consultant found, the current situation is putting too much pressure on the department and as a result it is affecting the other task they have to do—respond to fires.

The time has come to increase ambulance resources in Kelowna. It will be a move that will have a much wider impact than simply employing more paramedics. It will help two of the critical emergency response services in the city.

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.

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