The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service will explore options to boost its staffing levels, as COVID-19 infections continue to deplete its ranks.
On Friday, city council’s protection committee ordered the service to produce a plan meant to help mitigate sudden staff shortages. Last week, city officials noted WFPS was strained but stable, with 85 active cases among its staff and plenty of overtime being used to fill shifts.
Coun. Sherri Rollins, who leads the protection committee, said there’s a critical need for such a plan as the pandemic drags on and the Omicron variant fuels a massive surge in infections.
"It’s been a long pandemic. It’s time to adjust (staffing) and look critically at the organization… and (understand) the point at which your staff just simply burn out because it has been months and months of overtime," said Rollins.
The plan would set out a strategy to quickly increase the number of full-time staff available. The options to achieve that could include an expansion of the emergency paramedics in the community program (that addresses low priority, non-emergent calls), enhancing the EPIC 9 program (that handles the triage of less urgent 911 calls), and possible training changes that might free up more staff.
The WFPS is also expected to provide the potential cost of options and consult with Shared Health, for which Winnipeg is contracted to provide ambulance services.
On Friday, the committee voted unanimously to call for the report.
Coun. Markus Chambers said it’s critical the city find ways to ensure adequate shift coverage for the emergency service that avoid excessive overtime.
"(We) have to look at the human side of it in the fact that eventually our staff will burn out and we’re asking more and more of them with no end in sight," he said.
WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt told the committee 74 members of the service were off work due to active cases of COVID-19, as of Thursday. That dropped to 69 employees, or 4.5 per cent of the workforce, by Friday evening.
Schmidt said absentee levels appeared about normal for four days this week, but the service is concerned about a recent major spike between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
He said the city could transfer staff from administrative positions to front-line posts while other staffing options are explored. But that change would have a limited effect, since less than one per cent of the service’s employees work in executive level administrative positions, he noted.
Schmidt said members of recruit classes for new firefighters and paramedics could also be called into service early, though that option hasn’t yet been pursued.
"We are very fortunate (existing) staff answered the calls… and were setting aside personal matters and coming in to cover the shifts (over the holidays) because, had that not been the case, we very likely would have found ourselves in a situation where… we’d be looking at having to place units out of service."
In an interview, the WFPS chief told the Free Press some wait times appear to be on the rise due to the current staff shortage. While exact data is still being collected, Schmidt said times appear to have grown longer for low-priority calls.
"The simple fact that we’re seeing more calls that are held in the dispatch queue, that’s a big signal that the system is under pressure and so we need to be responding to that," he said.
The report on options to increase staff numbers is expected in June.
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.