Staffing crunch puts another ambulance on sidelines

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A shortage of paramedics pulled another Winnipeg ambulance out of service Wednesday, as officials continue to warn of chronic staffing problems among first responders resulting in millions in municipal over-expenditures.

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A shortage of paramedics pulled another Winnipeg ambulance out of service Wednesday, as officials continue to warn of chronic staffing problems among first responders resulting in millions in municipal over-expenditures.

Last weekend, 16 firefighters, seven paramedics and three 911 dispatch operators called in sick, and three ambulances had to be kept out of the rotation in Elmwood/East Kildonan and Weston neighbourhoods because there were too few paramedics to staff them.

“It is getting to be quite frequent, where we find ourselves in a position where units have to be taken out of service due to lack of staff, and we found ourselves in that situation again today,” Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief Christian Schmidt said Wednesday.

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Last weekend, 16 firefighters, seven paramedics and three 911 dispatch operators called in sick, and three ambulances had to be kept out of the rotation in Elmwood/East Kildonan and Weston neighbourhoods because there were too few paramedics to staff them.

One ambulance is off the road simply because of a lack of staff, he added. Fire trucks have been pulled off the road for the same reason.

“It’s certainly very concerning, and it’s a problem that we’re working on to solve.”

About 10 per cent of the department — 79 paramedics and 63 firefighters out of 1,400 front-line members — are on long-term absences, largely workers compensation or illness related.

The per capita staffing ratios need to be adjusted as the city’s needs rise, Schmidt said: currently 1.29 in fire operations and 1.34 for paramedics. Those ratios “served us well” for years, but now need to increase, the WFPS chief said.

“Those staffing ratios did not ever contemplate a pandemic, and people needing to be away from the workplace for multiple days for isolation purposes, so that’s something that we need to revisit.”

Updated ratios are being considered as part of the department’s budget process.

Last year, WFPS had $8.5 million in over-expenditures and $6.5 million the previous year, driven by an increase in sick time and workers compensation claims — some of which is “absolutely a direct result of COVID-19,” Schmidt said.

Rebecca Clifton, a paramedic and spokesperson for the Paramedic Association of Manitoba, said staffing shortages are severe in rural Manitoba as well.

“All paramedics within Manitoba can sympathize with the situation in the city of Winnipeg, because it’s the reality that everybody faces every single day.”

Rural ambulances going out of service, sometimes for weeks at a time due to lack of paramedics, is a “regular and recurring” problem, Clifton said.

City paramedics are suffering from unsustainable workloads and mental and physical strain, and rural paramedics have lower wages and working conditions that ultimately prompt them to seek jobs in the city, Clifton explained.

“Everyone is burning out” while more and more is being asked of them, she added.

“When you need extra assistance in an ER, when you need extra assistance with COVID swabbing… with vaccinations or within the communities, paramedics are always going to step up. But unfortunately, it is not sustainable at this rate.”

Schmidt said WFPS recruitment efforts are ongoing, with an upcoming class of new firefighters and a 14-student class of paramedic recruits set to graduate in mid-October.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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