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Striking Canadian Paramedics Disrupt Olympic Security Exercise

VANCOUVER - Striking paramedics disrupted a training exercise in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics for about four hours yesterday, erecting picket lines that unionized fire fighters and police refused to cross.

The paramedics ended their picket only after they were told, in error, that a court had issued an injunction prohibiting them from continuing. "We've achieved our objectives," Mike Binns, an executive member of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia, CUPE Local 873, told paramedics on the picket line as he advised them to leave the site.

The picket was undertaken to draw attention to the role of the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee in urging the B.C. government to legislate paramedics back to work, he said later to reporters. The activities were also intended to stress that the union would like to continue bargaining. "That's all we are asking, come back [to the bargaining table] and treat us fairly. ... Don't bring in draconian legislation that is not going to solve the problem," he said. Constable Dale Bendfeld of the RCMP Integrated Security Unit said later in an interview that the full exercise was carried out after the pickets left. He dismissed a suggestion that the disruption revealed a gap in security preparations. "This was an exercise," he said, adding that organizers wanted the training to be undertaken in a safe environment. Security forces would have looked at the picket differently if any of the activities posed a serious threat, Constable Bendfeld said.

The paramedics have been on strike since April 1. The B.C. government introduced legislation this week that would impose a contract and require them to return to work. The training exercise was in its fourth day of testing the response to scenarios that could occur during the Winter Games. Integrated security forces, firefighters and health-care workers were reacting to a "medical casualty event" at a VIA Rail station about five minutes from the congested centre of Vancouver. According to the script, a canister released radiological material on a train. About 50 people were to be brought from the train station to St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver. The victims were to be separated into two lines: those with physical injuries, chest pain, shortness of breath or serious bleeding, and those with flu-like symptoms, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision or vomiting. They were to be taken through a radiation screening portal and required to disrobe before moving into a decontamination tent.

Organizers had intended the security exercise to be a high-profile event. The media were invited to report on activities at the train station and at the hospital. However, they changed their plans after firefighters refused to cross the picket lines outside the train station and the hospital. About 45 paramedics were outside the train station and another 25 paramedics picketed the main entrance of the hospital where the mock patients were to be brought.

Eric Grafstein, who participated in the exercise as a triage physician, said plans for the exercise at the hospital were modified in response to the picket. "We've scaled back the disaster," he said. Nurses and doctors had to pretend the patients were coming in from VIA Rail. Jamie Tomlinson, a spokesman for the security exercise, told reporters at the train station that the training would continue at another location, although media access had been cancelled. He declined to comment further. Firefighters at the scene of the "medical event" said in brief interviews that they would not participate until the paramedics ended their picket. John Strohmaier, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., said paramedics should be governed by the same collective bargaining procedures as the police and fire services. "We work side by side. We should have the same fair process to end our disputes that they have," he said, referring to the process for mediation to resolve disagreements.

With report from Dawn Paley

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