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Opinion

They work cheek-to-jowl out of the same stations. They race to the same crash scenes and emergency calls. In Winnipeg, they have the same top bosses. One-on-one, they usually get along just fine.

But the political rivalry between firefighters and paramedics, tense for years, is now back to Defcon One, thanks to some shenanigans by the firefighters at last weekend's NDP leadership convention.

It's the latest case of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg throwing their political weight around, a weight that's not proportional to the needs of their members and says more about the weakness of politicians than the strength of firefighters. Meanwhile, the paramedics, who have a litany of long-standing front-line beefs, are consigned to nice-guys-finish-last status.

Here's the background, the political narrative that's emerged from backroom chatter at the NDP leadership convention: On the second ballot, the votes of roughly 20 UFFW delegates were all but promised to former jobs and the economy minister Theresa Oswald. Her operatives spent considerable time wooing union president Alex Forrest, as one does. But, moments after the first ballot results were announced, setting up the final faceoff between Oswald and Premier Greg Selinger, Forrest and his front-row pool of yellow-shirted delegates walked en masse over to Selinger's side, ushered by Health Minister Sharon Blady. The move produced howls of surprise from the floor.

Forrest and Selinger have roundly denied it, but the suspicion among paramedics, laid out in a worried letter their union sent to Selinger Monday, is the premier, in exchange for those 20-ish votes, promised to delay implementation of self-regulation for paramedics, a move that would weaken the influence of the firefighters union.

That's the stark difference between paramedics and firefighters right there. The firefighters don their yellow T-shirts, strong-arm promises from politicians, make bold and public moves, don't care if they cheese off half the room and find themselves the kingmakers. The paramedics write a letter the next morning.

There is a certain political cult that surrounds the firefighters, one they foment with mercenary skill, with remarkably effective branding, a public relations strategy matched by no other union and very close back-channel relationships with key politicians.

The paramedics have only a smidge of that, in part because their union, the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, is technically non-partisan. It's not affiliated with the NDP, and sent no delegates to the leadership convention, so there were no paramedics there as an organized cabal able to horse-trade for their votes.

Nor are the paramedics able to dispatch dozens of door-knockers to blitz a riding at election time in the public way firefighters do, earning the undying loyalty of a politician. Besides sheer manpower, there is little that's more effective in wooing votes than a trusted, noble firefighter at your door, one who might risk his life to save yours one day.

There's also a difference in style and culture. There's a certain strain of bro-hood among the firefighters union, to be expected when only about five per cent of them are women. They are mavericks within the labour movement, with a swaggering degree of self-promotion and naked self-interest that trumps ideological principles. They aggressively slap down anyone who takes them on, most recently mayoral hopeful Robert-Falcon Ouellette during last fall's civic election after he had the gumption to question the union's role in Judy Wasylycia-Leis's campaign. Forrest and the UFFW have a reputation for strong-arming politicians, for threatening and manoeuvring, for getting their way.

The paramedics union, even in the days before it was a unit of the MGEU, has always been so low-key as to be invisible, caught up in the technical rather than the political, more like compassionate nurses than daredevil rescue squads. In a word, paramedics are nerdier. If the firefighters are Bart Simpson, the paramedics are Milhouse Van Houten.

That's unfortunate because, measured objectively, paramedics have bigger problems. On a typical shift, they run from call-to-call with almost no downtime in the station. They're stymied by long off-load delays at local emergency rooms, frequent ambulance shortages and an increase in inter-facility transfers. They've lobbied hard, with slow success, to perform the kind of advanced life-saving skills you might find in an ER. Things are even worse, even downright dangerous, for rural paramedics.

Meanwhile, firefighters don't fight fires much any more. There was a 40 per cent drop in the number of fires in Winnipeg between 2010 and 2013, part of a continent-wide trend that continues. Instead, for the last decade, firefighters have cross-trained as paramedics so pumper trucks carrying a basic paramedic can be dispatched to medical calls instead of sitting idle.

There are conflicting views on whether the merging of roles has saved money or created a more efficient system. The city believes it has, and says it's the envy of Canada. From 2007 to 2010, the number of medical calls answered by fire crews that didn't need an ambulance roughly doubled to 8,195, freeing up resources.

But others -- mostly paramedics -- argue the merged system is still remarkably inefficient, driven not by the best patient care possible but by the need to keep firefighters relevant and immune to cuts. It's also one based on the absolute rule of speed, where a fire crew can arrive on scene in minutes and stop the response-time clock but not actually do much except hold someone's hand until the advance-care paramedics arrive with their expert skills, fancy equipment and the ability to transport someone to hospital.

Speed doesn't matter as much as we think in medical calls. It's counter-intuitive, but the number of medical calls where speed makes a difference, such as a heart attack, stands at only 10 per cent.

Even so, it's nearly impossible in this climate to have a rational, evidence-based debate about emergency medical services, especially when the lobbying power is so unreasonably tilted in the firefighters' favour. We need politicians to show a little courage and push back instead of pandering to the aggressive dominance of the UFFW. And we need the paramedics to put their dukes up a little more.

 

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca