British Columbia Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) and the provincial health officer are preventing firefighters in B.C. from attending health emergency calls involving flu-like illness in order to protect them from contracting COVID-19 and to preserve personal protective equipment.
The directive came on Tuesday in a letter from Dr. John Tallon, the chief medical officer for the BCEHS, following what he said was an order from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
It says that fire first responders will not be sent to “any potential influenza-like-illness or COVID-19 events.”
On Saturday, Dr. Bonnie Henry further explained the rationale behind the change. She says it was done in 2009 for the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, and will make sure paramedics have the lead on coronavirus calls and preserve personal protection equipment PPE.
“This was a way to best protect our first responders and ensure people got the paramedic response that they needed,” she said.
Watch Dr. Bonnie Henry say why it’s important to have paramedics take the lead on COVID-19 911 calls:
Firefighters will be able to go to serious medical emergencies involving life or death circumstances such as heart attacks, but only if they wear N95 masks and appropriate personal protective equipment.
They will not be able to use oxygen pumps on patients or do work involving patients’ airways until paramedics arrive.
Firefighters will be able to help at events where their technical rescue skills are needed. They may also be sent to less severe medical emergencies if paramedics are delayed by more than 20 minutes.
Henry also said that calls in general for paramedics have decreased as accidents and other medical emergencies have not been as prevalent in the past three weeks as people spend more time at home. This means that paramedics are better able to meet demands than normal.
She said the decision was made in concert with BCEHS and in speaking with firefighters.
Vancouver fire chief surprised
On Saturday, the fire chief and general manager of the Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS), Darrell Reid tweeted that his service did not ask for a lesser role in responding to medical calls and was surprised by the announcement.
His tweet said that early in the pandemic, VFRS worked with BCEHS to establish a reduction in responses to less serious calls and that “an evidence-based, patient-focused solution,” is needed.
.@VanFireRescue DID NOT ask for major reductions in dispatches to medical calls – & were not expecting the announcement.
Early in the pandemic we worked with @BC_EHS on a 6-7% response reduction to less serious calls.
We want an evidence-based, patient-focused solution. pic.twitter.com/1nBE9A526z
VFRS has a prominent role in the response to the overdose crisis in Vancouver, which has been severe in the Downtown Eastside.
Overdose crisis ongoing
The province is approaching the four-year anniversary of the public health emergency related to illicit drug overdoses.
The B.C. Coroners Service says close to three people are still dying a day, on average in the province, from illicit drug toxicity.
Vancouver recorded eight suspected overdose deaths in one week in March, the highest weekly toll since August 2019, according to the City of Vancouver.
Henry says she is confident that needs are being met and will continue to be under the new directive.
The BCEHS says that keeping firefighters on the sidelines for specific calls will help preserve personal protective equipment for health care workers, which includes paramedics.
The closest ambulance will still be sent to patients as quickly as possible, it said in a statement.