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This article was published 23/7/2019 (386 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Winnipeg firefighters are being advised by their union to consider personal safety ahead of job obligations.
A memo to all members was posted on the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg website Tuesday morning, in light of a report showing an increase in the number of 911 calls for police assistance being diverted to firefighters and EMS paramedics.
UFFW president Alex Forrest said the data — obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press through an access to information request — indicates the lives of firefighters are being placed at risk because police are overwhelmed with calls for service, often fuelled by individuals suffering from mental health and addiction issues.
"Given the violent nature of Winnipeg's streets, if there is any sense that there is a crime in progress, possible violence or weapons present, we are asking our members to stage and wait for police to arrive to ensure the scene is safe before we do any further action," Forrest told the Free Press.
The Free Press published data Monday showing an average 10 per cent increase in the number of diverted calls from 911 in the first six months of 2019, compared to the same period in 2017.
On a month-to-month comparison, the number of diverted calls in June 2019 had increased 16.8 per cent, compared to June 2017, and there was a 12.5 per cent increase in March.
The Winnipeg Police Service denied it’s offloading calls to the WFPS, explaining police officers are dispatched to all incidents where a violent act is suspected to have occurred, along with paramedics who are requested for medical reasons.
However, unions representing both city firefighters and ambulance-based paramedics said their members often receive calls for medical assistance only to find a violent criminal act occurring.
"Over the last year, we have seen a big change in the nature of the calls we are being dispatched to. We are seeing weekly examples of our members being assaulted or dispatched to calls that needlessly put them in harm’s way... Many of these calls are neither medical nor fire/rescue emergencies, but primarily calls for police assistance or investigation," the UFFW memo states.
"This must stop. The police have to stop using our brothers and sisters of the UFFW as a convenient extension of their own department to investigate situations... If the current method of dispatching calls does not change, it is only a matter of time before one of our members is severely injured or worse, killed."
Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane said he's not concerned with the message, explaining the memo reflects existing WFPS policy.
Lane said he doesn't believe police are deliberately diverting potentially violent calls for service to be handled by firefighters and EMS paramedics, but admitted the "occasional" call gets through. However, Lane said, in those instances, if WFPS first responders feel threatened, they are to contact police.
"The nature of the emergency work environment is unpredictable — that's why it's called emergency. An element of danger has always been present," Lane told reporters Tuesday.
Echoing concerns raised by Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth and Mayor Brian Bowman about the dangers posed by meth addiction, Lane said city streets have become more dangerous for first responders.
"We have worked very closely with (police) to ensure that calls we receive are indeed appropriate for us to receive and that any calls where there is any suggestion of requirement for police to secure a scene first, that police resources are responded first," he said.
Lane said 911 staff rely on the information provided by the public to assess the priority and such information is "notoriously unreliable."
Jean-Guy Bourgeois, an official with the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents about 350 Winnipeg EMS paramedics, said the increasingly violent nature of mental health and drug addiction issues requires the province and city hall provide more police resources.
"In order to deliver emergency medical care safely, we need to have more police resources on the streets," Bourgeois, said, adding it's important WFPS dispatch provide EMS paramedics with relevant information for each call.
Updated on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at 5:51 PM CDT: Updates
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