Should paramedics be an essential service?

Province-wide petition comes to Nelson, calls for referendum.

Paramedics across the province are calling for the government to recognize them as an essential service. Local organizer Trevor Gernack (left) is busy collecting signatures.

Paramedics across the province are calling for the government to recognize them as an essential service. Local organizer Trevor Gernack (left) is busy collecting signatures.

What would we do without paramedics?

A province-wide petition put forward by Victoria paramedic Josh Henshaw aims to urge the B.C. government to consider this question, and to designate them as an essential service alongside police and fire.

And with the overdose crisis putting new strains on the work force, they’d like to see action sooner rather than later.

“I’m trying to do all of this without painting too grim a picture of the current state of the ambulance service,” Henshaw told the Star.

“But one thing I noticed while traveling across B.C. is that there’s a province-wide issue with staffing and retention and keeping ambulances on the road. And every once in a while something does happen, like a death, and the opportunity for that to happen exists on a daily basis.”

This petition is not an initiative of the paramedics’ union but has received widespread support from paramedics.

They have 90 days under the Recall and Initiative Act to present the results to the legislature, which will then lead to either an in-house vote or a provincial referendum.

If it’s successful, ambulance workers will no longer have the right to strike, but it will also mean employers can’t lock them out if pay negotiations go south. When B.C. paramedics went on strike in 2009, the government temporarily designated them an essential service and ordered them back to work.

One problem is they’re currently lumped in with 43,000 other hospital support staff, making them less than 10 per cent of the union voting body. According to Henshaw, that is a “pretty precarious” situation.

“We’ve got a lot of paramedics in the service who give too much, working 30-plus shifts a month just to get by because they can’t live with the idea of shutting down a car in their community to take a day off,” he said.

“Nobody should have to work that many shifts a month to ensure a community has an ambulance.”

The way he figures, the time to address this is now.

“Now is a better time to deal with this, rather than waiting for the union contract to come up for renegotiation.”

And local petitioner paramedic Trevor Gernack is optimistic about how things are going locally. In recent weeks he’s set up a booth at a Nelson Leafs game and canvassed at supportive local institutions such as Oso Negro, Whitewater Ski Resort and the Kootenay Co-op.

“Most people are surprised we’re not already an essential service,” said Gernack.

“The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.”

And that mirrors what’s going on in other communities. For the petition to be successful they need to get 10 per cent of the voting populace to sign in every single one of B.C.’s 85 ridings, a goal they’ve hit elsewhere and are on track to hit here in the Kootenays.

“We’ve got just over four weeks left,” said Henshaw.

“A couple of districts have already wrapped up and a few more are wrapping up in the next couple days. Right now we don’t control whether we strike or accept a contract or not,” said Henshaw.

“There has to be a better way to do this.”

If you want to get involved, email To learn more about the paramedics, questions can be directed to