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Motorists travel during heavy snowfall in downtown Vancouver, on Dec. 19.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s Lower Mainland had almost 100 calls in queue for an ambulance Thursday night as government officials warned people to stay off the roads because of frigid temperatures and treacherous conditions.

As of 9 p.m., at least 96 callers were waiting for an ambulance, The Globe and Mail has learned. More than 40 per cent of ambulances in the Lower Mainland were unstaffed.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., confirmed the figures, calling them “significant.” There are typically between 120 and 140 ambulances operating throughout the Lower Mainland on any given day, but on Thursday night 62 were out of service, he said. He attributed the backlog of calls to staff shortages, the result of a continuing failure to recruit and retain paramedics.

Purple and red calls are the top priorities and include life-threatening issues such as cardiac arrest and serious vehicle accidents. Orange and yellow calls – such as broken bones and seizures – are considered lower priorities, but still require urgent attention.

“They’re still some serious calls in there that require attention, and the longer you wait for those types of calls, the potential for poor patient outcomes can be more significant,” Mr. Clifford said.

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“You think back to some of the calls that we’ve heard around the province, you know, the recent one in White Rock where a lady broke her leg and lay there for four hours – that’s an unacceptable delay. It may not be life-threatening, but it’s still a significant ambulance call that should not be waiting that long.”

Mr. Clifford said he is concerned about the anticipated increase in 911 calls heading into the holiday season.

The Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. is in contract negotiations with the Health Employers Association of British Columbia, and veteran mediator Vince Ready was recently brought in.

Earlier Thursday, Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma warned of incoming snow and freezing rain, which could make for hazardous road conditions – making it harder for ambulances to respond to calls promptly and putting further strain on the service, especially if the number of vehicle accidents goes up or if people can’t drive themselves or their loved ones to hospitals.

“Freezing rain is primarily forecast in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island,” Ms. Ma said. “In the Fraser Valley, freezing rain could last up to 36 hours and may cause dangerous and slippery road conditions for drivers. Environment Canada and Drive BC have issued weather alerts and travel advisories for many areas, and I strongly encourage everyone in these areas to travel only if necessary.”

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