Ferries playing ‘money-making’ game: Jim Abram

Quadra Island Director Jim Abram is unhappy with a new policy which he says puts patient health at risk

Quadra Island Director Jim Abram is unhappy with a new policy between BC Ferries and BC Ambulance Service which he says puts patient health at risk.

Last October, BC Ambulance changed its protocol that allowed paramedics treating a patient en route to Campbell River Hospital to call the crew on board the Quadra Island ferry and ask that the vessel be held up for the ambulance.

Now, under the new policy, paramedics must call into the BC Ambulance dispatch centre in Victoria, and the dispatcher then calls the BC Ferries Operations Centre which in turn contacts the ferry crew.

Abram said that protocol has some pitfalls.

“They aren’t there, they’re in a different town and they don’t know the situation,” Abram said. “If the dispatcher says ‘no’ that person doesn’t need to be on the ferry, the ferry won’t wait and the patient has to wait another hour to get to Campbell River. It puts the decision in the hands of people in Victoria versus the person who is providing the care and they should be the one making the decision.

“And keep in mind, all of this is taking time.”

Lance Stephenson, BC Ambulance’s area director for coastal districts, said while he agrees there is more of a time lag under the new system, it’s more organized and the process has so far run smoothly.

“Definitely there’s a longer delay with that process but it’s getting better as we use it more and more and it keeps things consistent,” Stephenson said. “It was harder to keep track before as it was all on an ad-hoc basis. We needed to make the system more effective and we haven’t had any issues in the last few months.”

Stephenson said it also allows the paramedic to better focus on providing treatment.

“By having the dispatcher co-ordinate the logistics, the paramedic can focus on good patient care,” Stephenson said. “Before, they were busy dialing their phones, while trying to get to the ferry and treat the patient. It became quite a challenge.”

He said in situations where BC Ambulance has had to ask BC Ferries to wait because an ambulance is about to miss a sailing, the ferry corporation has been good with delaying the ship’s departure.

“We have a great working relationship with BC Ferries,” Stephenson said. “We’ve asked for the courtesy to save us a spot and hold the ferry for five or so minutes and 99 per cent of the time, the ferry is good at holding.”

He said that in his experience, BC Ferries has not charged BC Ambulance for delaying a sailing for up to five minutes but “if the hold up is too long, BC Ferries will start to charge.”

Deborah Marshall, spokesperson for BC Ferries, confirmed that the corporation will charge if the delay becomes too lengthy.

“When a ferry is used for an emergency call out, either during regular operations and delaying the schedule by 10 minutes or greater, or during silent hours, BC Ferries charges BC Ambulance Service on a pure cost-recovery basis,” Marshall said.

Abram said he believes that the charge, which he said used to be $1,400 for an emergency call-out, dissuades BC Ambulance from asking for the ferry to wait for patients.

“This is not supposed to be a money-making game, to get people to medical care, so this has to change,” Abram said.

But Stephenson said BC Ambulance does all it can to put patient care first and the service has access to modes of transportation other than the ferry to accomplish that.

“We will pull out all the stops to get these patients transported from the islands to where they need to be,” Stephensen said. “In conversation with our dispatch centre, we may say rather than hold the ferry we have a helicopter in the area that can be there in five minutes. Our system is really fluid.”