I have heard all these things, many times in the past month. The detailed stories, the shared tears and heartfelt thanks cannot fail to move us. These people are not referring to me, but to the BC Ambulance Paramedics that I have been working with as we canvass for signatures on the petition to make Paramedics an essential service in the same way as Police Officers and Fire Fighters are. What an amazing experience it has been to get to know these truly dedicated professionals. There can be almost no family in our province that has not been touched by the BC Ambulance Service. All of us can expect to benefit from their dedication at one time or another in our lives.
When we get a chance to talk to people almost everyone signs the petition. People come to us asking where to sign on the form. They stand in line and bring their stories. They tell us why they care. This is a good experience, but at the same time I wonder why it is that BC Ambulance Paramedics have to spend their time standing on sidewalks, knocking on doors and asking for signatures. Why is this particular group of first responders treated like second class citizens. What society would treat those who are so vital to its welfare, who help bring us into the world, who are there for us in our most vulnerable the way our Paramedics are treated. Why would anyone choose this career?
I had heard that working conditions were not good, but it was only by standing beside these heroes that I have learned just how bad the situation is. Did you know that after completing their training at the Justice Institute they are required to complete many hours of unpaid practicum, then there are no jobs in the big cities. They must apply for and accept part time assignments in remote parts of the province. They have to make their own way to and from their station. They get paid $2.00 per hour to be on standby at these remote locations. Only if they get a call are they paid a real wage. Often the cost of travel exceeds the pay received. Often they are the only paramedic at their station. This near slavery condition can go on for years (about 5 years is average), then if they are lucky they can land a slightly better ‘on-call’ job where they receive minimum wage to be on standby. At this level they make minimum wage until a call comes in then they are paid for their skills. No one can live on this wage so virtually all have some other job to pay the bills. It must be exhausting.
Finally after this minimum wage period and with some luck they may land a full time, fully paid position in a larger population area like Victoria or Vancouver. This is terrible for the paramedics, but it is also bad for the citizens of BC.
It is hardly surprising that many young paramedics leave the profession or leave BC to take other work. Some go to the Oil Fields as paramedics, some become police officers or firefighters, some join the military and use their skills there. Others simply give up. Others will burn out.
Add to this the drug overdose crisis. The shortage of ambulances in Vancouver and Victoria. Paramedics are exhausted. Paramedics are being drawn from the Fraser Valley and from Victoria to cover shifts in Vancouver. This stretches the resources in Victoria and the Fraser Valley. I see paramedics that are exhausted. I recently canvassed here in Victoria, with one ‘minimum wage’ paramedic who had just come off a 14 hour night shift from a station near Nanaimo. He had begun his day (the day before) by driving 1.5 hours from Victoria to his post, then he had been on the road most of the 14 hours, first with a transport to Victoria, then back to Nanaimo, then to Port Alberni to meet an ambulance from Tofino, then brought that patient to Nanaimo. All of this in the night in very difficult weather. Finally he had to drive back to Victoria. Nearly 17 hours on the road. And here he was standing beside me getting signatures on the petition. This is typical. One of the problems we are having in doing the canvass is that the paramedics are working so many hours that they don’t have the time to canvass for the help they need.
This is an appalling situation, but we have a chance to begin to fix it. We need to do it for them (they deserve our support) and we need to do it for ourselves because we NEED them!
Please make a point of signing the petition to treat these first responders in the same way as we do other first responders.