VANCOUVER — Premier John Horgan said he was heartbroken by the recent death of an infant while waiting for an ambulance in Barriere, B.C., adding his government had made a "significant investment" in rural and remote medical transport.
"My heart goes out to the family who are grieving the loss of a child," he said of the baby who died Thursday in the central B.C. community.
He said the province was "conscious" of the ambulance shortage and had added ground and air transportation options in remote locations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Horgan said the province was working with firefighters and the paramedics union to ensure first responders had adequate training and were able to act quickly during what he called "extraordinarily challenging times."
"We do not have enough people to provide the services that British Columbians have come to expect and the only way to do that is to train more," he said.
Existing staff would also have to be encouraged "to carry on working beyond when they would like," he said.
Peter Milobar, the Kamloops-North Thompson MLA who represents Barriere and is the Opposition BC Liberal finance critic, said the infant's death was a tragedy that highlighted the need for more ambulances across the province.
"As usual with the NDP, they talk about dollar figures as if that's the solution to all without the actual tangible result actually happening," he said in Victoria after the release of B.C.'s public accounts.
"(People) want to see deliverables. They want to see more ambulances in their communities."
On Monday, Barriere Mayor Ward Stamer had called for flexibility around which first responders were allowed to take patients to hospital.
Stamer said his community has a first responders society with a vehicle that could have responded when the BC Ambulance Service could not, but the society was not allowed to transport patients to hospital.
"That has to change, and that has to change today," he said in an interview.
But Drew McMartin, president of Barriere First Responders, a not-for-profit society that responds to the medical emergencies, said he did not consider that a viable solution.
"First responders aren't the answer to fixing the ambulance service problem," he said in an interview Tuesday, confirming that his members had been called to respond to the eight-month-old in cardiac arrest last week.
Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of BC, agreed.
"The system works very well with first responders and volunteer responder groups, but their role is not to treat and transport," he said. "We need ambulances that are staffed with two paramedics that can treat and transport somebody in their time of emergency," he said.
Clifford said his organization would continue to address what he called a "provincewide staffing crisis." He said staffing woes had left communities like Barriere without appropriate ambulance coverage for long periods of time.
"It's not unique to one particular community. It's across the province," he said.
"The premier is correct that the current government has invested a significant amount of money in the ambulance service, but unfortunately, it really just highlights how far behind and short-staffed we were."
Clifford said across B.C., some rural resources were being allocated to nearby urban centres, leaving their home communities unstaffed.
"That has to change," he said.
The biggest issue, Clifford said, is an inability to recruit and retain paramedics, with more than 1,000 positions vacant across B.C.
"We're relying on agencies that are not trained or within their scope to do that (and) that provides less-than-optimum patient care," he said.
— with files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 30, 2022.
Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press