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First purpose-built marine ambulance in B.C. waters a valuable commodity

Island Responder operating off Chemainus for island residents features an on/off ramp for stretchers

The Island Responder is providing a valuable lifeline for residents of Thetis, Penelakut and Reid Islands.

Operated by Chemainus Water Taxi Ltd. under a long-term contract with BC Emergency Health Services, the new ambulance boat went into service in October of 2021.

“We got it out of the shop towards the end of October and she was ready to go after sea trials,” said Chemainus Water Taxi’s Brian Francoeur.

An official launching ceremony had been planned for the middle of November, but it coincided with the horrific atmospheric river that struck the region at the time and was postponed. A rescheduled date in March or April has yet to be determined for the ceremony that will include elders from Penelakut blessing the vessel and officials from BCEHS and the Chemainus Water Taxi operators saying a few words.

“The MV Island Responder is dedicated to patients who live in the coastal communities around Chemainus who need paramedic transport to hospital in an emergency,” noted Shannon Miller, BCEHS communications officer, last November.

“The boat is the first purpose-built marine ambulance to operate in B.C. waters. Purpose-built means the boat was built with such things as an on/off ramp for patient stretchers, and wheelchairs, and about 100 square feet of room inside for patient treatment.”

“This has a person on standby 24/7,” explained Francoeur.

That includes himself, Harmen Bootsma, Chris Mullin and Robert Mollet, all with vast arrays of varying experience in the field and related areas.

“I’m very fortunate to have the quality of people and experience I have,” conceded Francoeur.

“The islanders love it, of course. We’ve done a pretty good service over there on Thetis, Penelakut, Reid Island.”

Chief Jeannine Caldbeck calls the emergency medical vessel a game-changer for the Thetis Island Volunteer Fire Department.

“We average over sixty medical calls a year requiring patient emergency evacuation to the next level of care and if the response does not require a helicopter the patient is evacuated by boat,” she explained. “The ability to roll our stretcher onto the boat rather than lift the patient over the gunwales is a much safer procedure and ergonomically less risky for our firefighters. There is lots of space in the new cabin to transfer the patient over to the paramedics’ stretcher in a smooth manner, protected from weather. The whole procedure is smoother and faster, which means a shorter transport time to the hospital and better patient comfort.”

“I’m so grateful for the Island Responder,” added Aaron Jack Sr., chief of the Penelakut Island Volunteer Fire Department.

“With all the medical calls we have on Penelakut Island it would be difficult to get the patient off the island. With the calls here the vessel responds within 20 minutes and that helps us out a lot. Some calls may take a while but they get over here ASAP.”

The transition moves smoothly from the time the vessel arrives on one of the islands to the transport back to Chemainus for a waiting ambulance on the dock.

“We’re met at the dock,” said Francoeur. “That’s the whole purpose is for them to bring the patient down.”

He added there were about 200 calls for service last year, most handled by his other vessel, the Skookum, before the Island Responder went into operation.

“That can be any kind of weather and any given time,” stressed Francoeur.

“We’ve done close to 90 calls now. Every year it’s more. The islands are filling up, the people are aging, that’s just the way it is.

“We’ve seen it all, some you don’t want to see.”

Francoeur said there are numerous credentials that need to be kept up to date for himself and his crew, including Marine First Aid.

He considers himself the spare guy at the moment, concentrating mainly on all the office work, taking the calls and arranging regular maintenance.

Francoeur worked in the woods during his earlier years up until age 55 and was one of the owners of Mount Sicker Lumber. He switched gears completely at that time to start Chemainus Water Taxi Ltd.

The Skookum started out doing diving and fishing charters and was the ambulance service vessel until the Island Responder came along. It was also used for corporate purposes for BC Hydro, BC Ferries, Telus, Western Forest Products, Mosaic and others.

The Skookum is a 27-foot Armstrong built in Sidney and Francoeur also operates the Pepe, a 20-foot Ironwood built in Burnaby.

The Island Responder is a 32-footer. It was built by Northwest Aluminum Craft Inc. in Victoria, with electronics and mechanisms for power steering done at Ladysmith Marine and the installation of the navigation system was done at Reedel Marine Services Ltd. in Parksville.

“We needed this boat,” said Francoeur. “It has the latest navigation, it’s safe, it’s dependable. What more can you do?”

Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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