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BC Ambulance takes heat over missing specialized equipment

A paramedic loads a stretcher into an ambulance after delivering a patient at the Emergency ward at Vancouver Genreal Hospital November 15, 2009.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Pagers, portable radios and cellphones are among the most common items reported lost or stolen by the operations branch of BC Emergency Health Services.

But pricier, specialized ambulance equipment – such as cylinders of anesthetic gas, pulse oximeters used to measure oxygen levels in the blood and devices used to immobilize the spine – are also listed in general incident or loss reports obtained by The Globe and Mail through a freedom of information request.

The losses raise questions about an agency that has recently revamped how it responds to emergency calls in an effort to allocate its resources better.

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BC Ambulance is facing criticism for downgrading several call types from emergency to routine, which has left some municipalities complaining about slow response times for non-urgent incidents.

While responding to calls quickly and effectively is the service's priority, BC Ambulance says it also strives to ensure that specialized equipment is kept safe.

In January, an entonox tank – which contains a mixture of laughing gas and oxygen that paramedics use to relieve pain – was reported stolen from an ambulance that was left unlocked in a parking lot on Lougheed Highway in Coquitlam. The cost of replacing it is listed as $1,000.

In a December incident, a portable radio clipped to the life jacket of a crew member getting off a water taxi at the Chemainus wharf fell off and went into the water.

The loss prompted a memo from the Chemainus unit chief, urging employees to use belt clips or stash portable radios in their pockets rather than clipping them to life jackets or vests. "Many have been lost when the wearer bends forward, or brushes an object," the memo reads.

Each of the portable radios costs about $1,000 to replace, according to the reports.

Last August, equipment valued at $1,733.99 was reported missing from a spare emergency services car.

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An investigation was conducted, but the gear – including a green spineboard, a set of spider straps, a KED device used to immobilize the spine and a splint – was not found.

BC Ambulance Service says it has put several measures in place to protect specialized equipment, such as instructing paramedics to lock ambulances when no crew members are inside and to leave equipment in the vehicles unless it is being taken to the scene.

Kelsie Carwithen, a spokeswoman for BC Ambulance Service, said most BC Ambulance paramedics do not carry a lot of drugs. But advanced-life-support paramedics, whose licenses allow them to give narcotics, have heavier drugs with them at all times. Biometric safes have been installed in stations where controlled substances are kept, Ms. Carwithen said.

When a loss or a theft occurs, paramedics are to report the incident to their supervisor immediately and fill out a formal report.

Most of the reports received by The Globe, which span all of 2013 and include a few incidents in early 2014, are about missing pagers, valued at about $300. BC Ambulance Service says it has taken steps to reduce the number of pagers going missing, such as asking employees to carry them at all times.

Ms. Carwithen notes that BC Ambulance paramedics respond to 480,000 prehospital calls annually.

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"Over 3,600 paramedics work at 184 stations across the province – these incidents represent a very small percentage of our activities per year," she said in an email.

BC Ambulance is taking heat from municipalities after downgrading dozens of 911 call types from emergency status to routine. The service has said the changes were meant to ensure that the most urgent calls get priority. But the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, a group representing 33 British Columbia governments, claims the changes have led to sluggish responses on non-emergency calls.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Author
Business Reporter

Alexandra Posadzki joined the ROB in August 2017, after spending nearly three years covering banking and real estate, among other topics, for the Canadian Press newswire. More

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