Winnipeg’s ambulances are used significantly more often than a national standard suggests — meaning they’re not as available to promptly respond to emergencies as they should be, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane says.
A new city report notes the average ambulance utilization rate was 58 per cent in 2019, while industry standards sets 35 per cent as a target for best service.
The utilization rate is defined as the average portion of time in which an ambulance is used to provide service in any hour or shift.
"What we’re actually seeing, in terms of the volume in our service, is way beyond anything that is seen as desirable in the industry," Lane said during a recent telephone interview. "So what it means is that it then begins to interfere with the availability of a given unit to respond to the next call."
Lane noted the integrated model the city uses means firefighter paramedics can provide medical care before an ambulance arrives, so the city targets a utilization rate of about 40 per cent to 45 per cent, instead of 35 per cent.
He expects the rate will average at least 60 per cent in 2020, as COVID-19 pandemic procedures for personal protective equipment and cleaning add time to responses.
On Monday, the chief repeated his call for the province to provide nine to 11 new ambulances for Winnipeg to improve service standards.
The report estimates adding 10 such vehicles would cost about $20 million, including the crew to run them.
Lane said Winnipeg has 37 ambulances, including some part-time and spare vehicles. The report says the number of emergency calls rose 20 per cent between 2011 and 2019, while the number of ambulances didn’t increase.
Ambulances were dispatched 83,968 times in 2018, 87,012 in 2019, and 62,818 in 2020 to date (up to Sept. 30), according to WFPS data.
Lane said he would also like to reduce the overall number of calls for ambulance service. Some emergency medical services in Europe already do this for minor injuries (such as twisted ankles) by referring the least sick and injured callers to seek alternate care or transportation.
"What it means is that people who have very low priority symptoms and appear to have some other means of getting to hospital or some other means of getting to other more appropriate care, that they are told that’s what they have to do and that an ambulance is not coming," said Lane.
"We don’t have the mechanisms in place to ensure that that can be done safely here yet."
Implementing such a change would require additional medical supervision of emergency calls, Lane said.
In an email, a Shared Health spokesperson accused the City of Winnipeg of negotiating through the media for its next ambulance contract, while stressing the province is committed to working out a deal.
"Part of this work includes ensuring the service is affordable and sustainable over the long term. This has required detailed work to identify operational improvements that will create capacity within WFPS to handle increased patient volumes," the spokesperson wrote.
The statement did not directly answer whether or not the provincial agency agrees the city needs more ambulances.
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.