Firefighters, paramedics get routinely stuck at Winnipeg’s railway crossings


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For many Winnipeggers, waiting at railway crossings is an inconvenience. For firefighting and paramedic crews responding to emergencies, waiting for a train can be more serious.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/04/2015 (2863 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For many Winnipeggers, waiting at railway crossings is an inconvenience. For firefighting and paramedic crews responding to emergencies, waiting for a train can be more serious.

“In the last few years we are getting greater train traffic, and what we are finding is it is becoming an increasingly bigger issue for us to deal with,” said Alex Forrest, United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president.

The issue of emergency vehicles blocked by trains arose several times recently during a discussion about whether to move the city’s many rail lines outside of the Perimeter.

David Lipnowski / Winnipeg Free Press Traffic waits for a train to cross the Waverley at Taylor train tracks Tuesday March 31, 2015.

Canadian rail operating rule 103 (d) says when trains are standing or switching operations at a public crossing, the train “must not obstruct vehicular or pedestrian traffic for a longer period than five minutes at a time. When emergency vehicles require passage, employees must co-operate to quickly clear the involved crossings.”

But Forrest said the operating rail rule is unrealistic.

Paramedic and firefighter officials said emergency personnel in the city don’t have direct communication with the trains to inform the conductors when there is a fire truck or ambulance waiting.

“We hadn’t realized there was a policy — but there is really no ability to deal 100 per cent with the issue of train traffic blocking emergency vehicles,” Forrest said.

Since Winnipeg is a city built around rail tracks, Forrest said fire halls have been strategically placed to try to avoid rail lines, but in some cases, being near a rail line can’t be avoided.

“Any time you have any city such as Winnipeg, you always have issues when you have the amount of trains going through the city… combining with the amount of bridges and traffic, it impacts the amount of (response) time,” Forrest said,

An email from a Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) spokesperson said while emergency personnel can’t communicate with conductors directly, there are circumstances when the WFPS would advise Canadian National or Canadian Pacific of accidents on the tracks so the conductor could be notified; or the railway companies will advise the WFPS in situations in which the delay is extensive or the crossing is closed due to work being done.

“Many ambulances and fire trucks try to avoid rails when we can, but you are going to encounter the problem,” Forrest said.

“For everyday emergency response, it is just one more issue we have to deal with…”

When an emergency responder is answering a call and has a significant delay due to trains, another emergency vehicle is dispatched.

It appears data are not being collected showing how often trains are blocking EMS vehicles or how often a second EMS vehicle is being dispatched due to the train delay for the initial vehicle, said local consultants Garreth Rempel and Neil Ternowetsky.

The two have been collecting and compiling data as part of a project for MORR Transportation Consulting Ltd. in Winnipeg to help provide EMS first responders with train-crossing information.

So far, their findings are Tuesday is the worst day for blockages on Marion Street, with an average of 55 cumulative blockage minutes, and Sunday is the day with the least number of blockages, with only 7.8 blockages a day.

“I would assume it is probably affecting ambulances two to five times a week, but statistics are unknown… Our dispatchers really are incredible with juggling resources to make sure patient care isn’t affected,” said Ryan Woiden, president of the Paramedics of Winnipeg Local 911, a branch of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.

Woiden, who has had 15 years in the field, said when an ambulance is stuck behind a train, the wait time is no longer than two minutes, in his personal experience.

“There is a small percentage of people transported back with lights and sirens, a critical patient, and it can be a little bit more stressful because we will be with the patient for more time. However, the skill set we have allows us to properly care for the patient,” Woiden said.

The most stressful situation for an ambulance stuck behind a train is when a woman is being transported in labour, Woiden said.

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