There was a total of more than seven hours in December when Winnipeg did not have a single ambulance available to respond to emergencies, the longest combined one-month total for the past four years.
"It’s extremely noticeable," said Ryan Woiden, president of the paramedics union Local 911, a part of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.
Woiden said a surge in calls for help is keeping ambulances on the move more often. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) notes paramedics responded to about 89,300 medical incidents in 2019, up from 67,600 in 2015, which the service blames on growing demand from baby boomers and those aged 25 to 35.
"I’ve been doing this 20 years and this is the busiest we’ve ever been," said Woiden.
A WFPS official said the sharp increase in "zero ambulance availability" is also lengthening emergency response times, which now average about 13 minutes. The national standard is about 9 minutes, the city says.
"The ability to respond quickly is under pressure," said Christian Schmidt, WFPS deputy chief of operations, in a written statement.
Meanwhile, the city said increased demand is forcing paramedics to attend more calls each day, leading them to sometimes skip breaks or work up to 11 hours before pausing for a meal.
It’s also become more common for Winnipeg to operate on "degraded status," at times when there are six or fewer ambulances available. In December, the city said that occurred for about 12 hours each day.
“I’ve been doing this 20 years and this is the busiest we’ve ever been.” – Ryan Woiden
"We’re certainly degraded every day in the mornings and we definitely don’t come out of degraded when I get off my shift 12 hours later," said Woiden.
To address the problem, WFPS hopes to add six to 11 new ambulances and expand its community paramedic program to five units from two.
However, Woiden is not convinced that adding ambulances will be enough to solve the problem. He believes the city should also explore the addition of single response units, which would allow one advanced-care paramedic to respond in a non-ambulance vehicle and treat patients on scene.
"Single response units that have one paramedic certainly could help double our response capacity and we need to start looking at it," said Woiden.
Shared Health, the provincial agency that contracts WFPS to provide emergency services, did not directly answer questions on whether it would consider funding more ambulances for Winnipeg.
"Shared Health continues to work closely with government and our service partners, including WFPS, to improve emergency medical care across the province," the agency noted in a written statement.
The statement stressed monthly ambulance data fluctuates often and provides only a "snapshot of information." That data includes cases where ambulances weren’t available for periods that last just seconds or a few minutes each, the statement said.
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.