Fire engine sidelined in staffing shortage

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Winnipeg firefighters were short-staffed on three recent shifts, a problem their union claims is putting patient care at risk.

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Winnipeg firefighters were short-staffed on three recent shifts, a problem their union claims is putting patient care at risk.

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service confirmed crews were six members short on June 26, when the service couldn’t find enough staff to operate one fire engine and one squad unit. That left those units out of operation for 10 hours.

Similar problems took place on the previous weekend. On Saturday, June 18, seven shifts couldn’t be filled, while the service fell three firefighters short on June 19.

WFPS said the shortage was caused by vacation, sick days and other leaves that it could not find enough staff to cover through overtime.

The head of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg union said the reduced staffing level threatens to lengthen response times and compromise patient safety.

“We’re starting to put machines off duty so that’s a bit of Russian roulette, as far as I’m concerned,” said union president Tom Bilous.

Bilous said many firefighters are willing to work overtime but the demand for them to do so surged in recent months, leading more of them to start turning down shifts.

“They are getting burned out, fatigued… there’s no doubt they are getting exhausted and it’s unsustainable, this level of overtime,” he said. “That period of rest and recovery is getting jeopardized and it has been… for months on end. We’re starting to see the effects.”

The union leader urged WFPS to hire 50 more firefighters.

WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt said the service is concerned by the staffing crunch, which began in late December, and is doing all it can to mitigate it.

“There (are) no adverse outcomes… but obviously it’s not ideal. We have a complement we have run with for many years and it’s proven effective… and we need to maintain that,” he said.

The service said COVID-19 isolation and illness led to a sharp increase in sick days and overtime hours earlier this year. Mental health issues and burnout have fuelled absences, which the service links to the strain of the pandemic and high demand for service.

Schmidt said five firefighters were recently hired and four firefighter primary care paramedics will start working in July, adding to 73 firefighters hired last year.

He noted COVID-19 is still forcing more staff to be absent, since emergency workers with symptoms of the virus must stay home to avoid causing an outbreak within WFPS or infecting vulnerable patients.

“We simply cannot be in a situation where we have somebody in the workforce who is COVID-positive who is potentially spreading that illness to other members of the workforce or patients that they’re caring for,” he said.

The chief said the service has taken several steps it hopes will help stabilize the staffing level. Those include: researching retirement trends and using the data to proactively hire replacements; adding two health resource specialists to help staff on leave get treatment to safely return to work as soon as possible; and creating a behavioural health unit to help employees address mental health issues.

Joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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