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Help us help: how to keep 911 for serious emergencies

BC Emergency Health Services is receiving more 9-1-1 phone calls in its dispatch centres than ever before. In the past five years there has been a 28 per cent increase in 9-1-1 calls for an ambulance.
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BCEHS is also dispatching paramedics to more patient events than ever before. One 911 event can mean multiple calls into our dispatch and multiple ambulances and paramedic crews.

The significant increase is due to a variety of factors including extreme weather events, a growing and aging population with more complex health needs, and the toxic drug health crisis. We also know from our conversations with callers that some people call 911 because they weren’t aware of what other resources are available for less-urgent health conditions.

BCEHS has increased its dispatch staffing and increased its permanent paramedic positions and ambulance resources, but we still need the public’s help to ensure publicly-funded resources are used wisely.

More than 40 per cent of all calls BCEHS receives are triaged as “low-acuity,” meaning some may not require an ambulance response and can be resolved with medical advice or an alternate pathway.

To help us reach patients who need us very quickly, please only call 911 if it’s a serious medical emergency. You will be helping us to ensure we are able to speak to and treat the most seriously ill and injured patients as quickly as possible.

We want people to call 911 if someone’s health or safety is at serious risk - that’s why we’re here.

Here are some examples of when you should call 911:  When there is chest pain, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, severe burns, choking, convulsions that are not stopping, a drowning, a severe allergic reaction, a head injury, signs of a stroke, major bleeding.

For your medical concerns when it’s not a serious emergency, here are some alternatives:

  • Call 811 to speak with a nurse or other health expert
  • Visit and use their Interactive Symptom Checker
  • Visit an urgent care centre or clinic if you can do it safely.
  • Call a pharmacist if you have a question or concern about a prescription.
  • Call the B.C. Poison Control Centre if you suspect someone has been poisoned with a medicine, chemical or substance. 604.682.5050 or 1-800-567-8911
  • Mental health concerns: If someone is in immediate danger of hurting themselves, you should call 911 and we will help you. For mental health support where there is no immediate risk to someone’s safety, call the Crisis Centre’s line at 310-6789 (no area code needed). If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, but it is not an immediate risk, they can call 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE) or call a local crisis centre.

Triage process in dispatch

Like hospital emergency departments, BCEHS has a triage process.

That means if you call 911 but it’s not life-threatening, you may be waiting longer if there are a lot of calls at the same time, as we have to make sure we speak to and treat the most seriously ill or injured patients.

In 2021, BCEHS worked with ECOMM to establish a priority line for life-threatening calls, separate from the main call-transfer lines between the two organizations.

If you do call 911 for a health condition that is initially triaged by our dispatch staff as less urgent in nature, your call may be sent to another area of our dispatch to help you. This area is known as our secondary triage desk, and we have paramedic specialists and primary care paramedics trained as secondary triage clinicians to do a further assessment to connect you to the right resource for your health need. This can include a clinical assessment using video teleconferencing (with your permission) within their scope of practice, or referral to another health service.

Other ways you can help us help:

If you no longer need an ambulance or you can make your own way to hospital, please call us back to let us know. Our crews can then be redirected to another patient who needs us.

However, do not call us back to ask how long the ambulance will be. We know it can be stressful waiting; however, this could delay us speaking to a caller about a seriously ill or injured patient. Only call us back if the patient’s condition worsens or you no longer need our help.

Thank you for helping us help you!

Watch paramedic Brian Twaites talk about when to call 9-1-1.

SOURCE: Help us help: how to keep 911 for serious emergencies ( )
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