Winnipeg paramedics say they need five more ambulances to cope with a crisis that could cost lives, and they are challenging the candidates for mayor to commit to solutions.
But Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service officials say the picture isn't nearly as grim as the paramedics' union paints it. Since 2004, city figures show paramedic calls have gone up at least 15 per cent. And 911 processing times for medical calls have increased 44 per cent over the last three years, say medics.
They say it's taken paramedics 20 or 25 minutes to get to several different cardiac arrest calls in recent months, which puts Winnipeggers at risk. "We have people who just aren't getting ambulances in time," said Chris Broughton, president of the paramedics' local of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union.
The union, which has close ties to the NDP, is wading into the election fray today by launching a series of television ads and a website meant to catapult the ambulance shortage onto the campaign agenda. The United Firefighters of Winnipeg, traditionally at loggerheads with paramedics over turf and funding priorities, have already flexed their political muscle by endorsing Mayor Sam Katz. Katz would not comment on the ambulance shortage Sunday. His campaign staff said he was not aware of a problem and hadn't had any new requests for more ambulances from the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service. Katz's campaign staff arranged for Acting Chief Reid Douglas to respond to the union's claims.
"At peak times, we could probably use 10 more ambulances, but for the most part we are pretty well-staffed right now," said Douglas, who noted there were a dozen ambulances available for calls Sunday evening, plus 36 cross-trained firefighters able to provide basic medical care. "We've got a model that's the envy of Canada." Douglas said the biggest cause of sporadic paramedic shortages is the long wait times to off-load patients at busy emergency rooms.
A year ago, city data released to the Winnipeg Free Press showed Winnipeg often had no ambulances to dispatch to calls, not even a unit on a lunch break. In June 2009, the city was without an available ambulance for a total of 32 hours. In July, the shortage was more acute -- a total of 37 hours with no ambulances. Those shortages didn't last for more than 10 or 15 minutes, but medics were often stuck at ERs for hours.
"Each and every day we run out of ambulances," Broughton said.
The off-load issue has been a long-standing source of tension between the city and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, and it's one of the reasons the WRHA funded an extra ambulance this year. It's only part of the problem, though, Broughton said. A steep increase in call volumes and longer waits in the 911 call centre are also hampering medics. "We're being pulled in two directions and getting ripped in the middle," he said.
Katz made a promise earlier this month to add 19 more call-takers and dispatchers to the police side of the 911 system following a report that found a serious shortage. But Broughton said the fire paramedic side is the "forgotten stepchild of the 911 system."
Broughton said the ad campaign is not just about securing more money for medics. He'd like to see creative, long-term solutions that better integrate paramedics into the health care system, as medics already do double duty as catch-all primary health care providers. "We want to be a part of doing something more effective," he said. "We can be the greeters to the health care system and direct people where they need to be instead of the ER."
"It's clear we have a critical problem that doesn't seem to be registering anywhere on the agenda," mayoral challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis said.