In 2020, Campbell River saw the highest number of medical emergency events in the last five years, a trend that looks to be continuing in 2021.
BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS), which manages and dispatches 911 calls, releases data on the total number of emergency medical events it tracks each year.
Across British Columbia, call volumes — representing the total number of emergency medical events, not individual calls — decreased by about one percent from 2019 to 2020 (from 530,801 to 524,870 events). BCEHS attributes this negative trend to shutdowns and other measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the opposite trend was observed in Campbell River. Here, call volumes increased by about five per cent, from 4,878 events in 2019 to 5,108 events in 2020.
This year, call volumes in Campbell River have continued to increase. Through to the end of September 2021, BCEHS recorded 4,164 events, equal to 463 events per month. Should this rate continue through to the end of the year, 5,552 events will have been recorded.
Examining this BCEHS data further, more severe events are being recorded.
A system called the Clinical Response Model categorizes calls by severity using a colour code to match resources to patient needs, said Jane Campbell, BCEHS communications officer, in an email. Purple calls are most severe (immediately life threatening), followed by red (life threatening or time critical), orange (urgent or potentially serious), yellow (non-urgent) and blue.
From 2019 to 2020, the number of purple calls recorded in Campbell River increased 30 per cent, from 88 to 114 events. Red, orange and yellow events also increased (from 1,127 to 1,166, from 1,428 to 1,479 and from 2,198 to 2,310 events, respectively).
This increase in the volume and severity of medical calls may be attributed to more overdose events being responded to in Campbell River. This is supported by both BCEHS data and the experience of the Campbell River Fire Department.
According to BCEHS, paramedics responded to 249 overdose calls in 2020, compared to 177 in 2019. Already in 2021 (through to the end of September), there have been 315 overdose responses calls performed in Campbell River, representing about seven per cent of overall medical emergency calls.
While the Campbell River Fire Department responded to fewer medical calls in 2020 than in 2019 because of changes in dispatching protocols, it has responded to a high number of calls so far in 2021, said Chief Thomas Doherty. This year, the fire department has already performed 1,164 medical responses in 2021, compared to 561 in 2020.
“Many of the calls that we’re seeing now are in direct relation to the overdose issue,” said Doherty. “We’re seeing significant call volumes related to overdoses or other drug and alcohol addictions.”
These calls are often located in and around Campbell River’s downtown — but not all of them.
“We actually respond to a lot of medical or drug related incidents in residential areas as well,” he said. “It’s quite surprising there’s a number of these occurring in homes.”
Besides responding to incidents involving motor vehicles, technical rescues and hazardous materials, the fire department is also automatically dispatched as first responders to severe, life-threatening medical emergencies.
But the fire department also responds to less severe, ‘yellow’ events, when ambulance arrival is delayed by more than 10 minutes. This is happening more often lately, which is also driving the department’s workload, said Doherty.
“They will dispatch us to at least have somebody respond, and we’ve had incidents where we’ve been on scene with a patient for over an hour waiting for an ambulance to come from another community,” he said. “We’re seeing that occurring quite a lot lately.”