'Dire' ambulance shortage leaves Westman in the lurch

·6 min read

The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals is sounding the alarm after rural areas of the province saw more than 17,000 hours where ambulances were out of service and unavailable to assist Manitobans in an emergency last October — the ripple effects of which have been felt throughout Westman.

The union, representing more than 800 rural paramedics, received a copy of the October 2021 Medical Transportation Coordination Centre Ground Report that pointed to the 17,000 hours of no ambulance coverage in rural Manitoba.

The timing marks a five-year high and shows no signs of slowing down due to increasing demand for ambulances and paramedic staffing shortages, association president Bob Moroz told the Sun.

“It’s dire. It’s dangerous. It’s frightening.”

Paramedics have been asked to work incredible amounts of overtime and callbacks over the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, Moroz said. The sector is now seeing paramedics who are burnt out and experiencing extreme fatigue psychologically and physically.

“We’re hundreds of paramedics short rurally,” Moroz said. “It’s a terrible circle. Our workforce with our paramedics has been far too small for years anyways. We’ve been talking about that for years and we would get dismissed.”

Finding a quick fix to the situation will be difficult, he said, noting his association and others have been trying to work with the government for years to address the growing crisis and staff shortages in rural areas.

The provincial government must publicly address the crisis faced by rural emergency response services and paramedics, he said. The next step is to post positions, hire full-time workers immediately and actively recruit new paramedics to areas in need.

The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals wants to see the Manitoba government commit to a tangible recruitment and retention plan for rural paramedics to regain the trust of those in the sector. He said this plan must address the wage disparity between rural and urban paramedics.

“We’re not going to find 400 paramedics in the next two weeks to fill the vacancies. We needed to get on this years ago,” Moroz said. “We need to have the government address that as quickly as possible.”

Rural residents should still call 911 in cases of emergency, Moroz said, but depending on one’s location in the province, response times may take longer.

“Our paramedics desperately want to provide their care in the shortest possible period of time, but there is likelihood response times are up,” Moroz said. “We’re seeing response times go up across the entire province.”

Speaking anecdotally, he said in the Prairie Mountain Health region, there are regular days that can see staff needed for shifts down by 40 per cent compared to the base need.

“Our goal is to make sure the government and employer are putting working conditions in place that allow these trained professionals to work at their peak abilities. When there is so much stress and strain on the system, that’s the issue,” Moroz said. “There’s has to be a way that Shared Health and the government understand that. They cannot say they are unaware.”

Terry Browett, a Brandon firefighter and president of International Association of Local 802, which represents firefighters and paramedics, said the effects of the ambulance shortage can be felt in the Wheat City. He said there are multiple times a day when the city has no ambulance coverage.

A post to the Brandon Firefighter Paramedics Facebook page, which is run by Browett, reflected this dilemma.

“In Brandon we are no longer able to provide the ambulance service expected in an urban center. We have no ambulances available to [respond] to EMS calls within Brandon multiple times every day due to call volume. We are now responding with these ambulances to Shilo, Souris, [Wawanesa] and Rivers because they have no ambulance coverage due to staffing or transfers.”

The city saw almost 7,000 calls for service in 2021 and transfers to Winnipeg from Brandon have increased 300 per cent, the post noted.

Brandon Firefighter/Paramedics Local 803 has reached out to elected and health officials to address the situation, but has yet to receive a response.

“We only have two primary ambulances we have multiple times a day, where both of them are out of service on calls,” he said. “There’s a gap where we don’t have ambulance coverage.”

When a third call comes in and they’re lucky, a rural ambulance may be nearby and can respond.

“It’s a problem in the rural areas,” Browett said. “Now our primary units aren’t just for our city, they’re now responding to Shilo and other areas.”

It is a vicious cycle — the ambulances without borders model forces the closest unit to respond to a call. This can result in staff being called out to remote parts of Westman, stretching paramedic coverage thin in Brandon.

“This is something that has been a problem for a number of years and I think COVID has just exposed some of these weaknesses that have been there for a while with the added call volumes,” Browett said “It’s getting hard to fill a lot of these calls.”

In an email to the Sun, Shared Health, which assumed operation responsibility for emergency response services in 2019, acknowledged some of these hardships.

“Staffing of emergency response services has long been a challenge in some rural parts of the province, with efforts underway to recruit staff to provide 24/7 paramedic coverage in order to reduce Manitoba’s reliance on overtime or on-call staffing,” a Shared Health spokesperson said, noting the situation has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

“Manitobans can be assured that emergency response services remain available to them. Our paramedic fleet uses a globally-recognized deployment approach, which strategically positions emergency response services throughout the province to ensure Manitobans have access to emergency services even if a local unit is temporarily unavailable.”

Recruitment has been a major area of focus for the last three years, said the spokesperson. Shared Health has been using redeployment, engagement of relief staff and callouts for recently retired or former paramedics to rejoin the workforce as part of its COVID-19 response.

Other initiatives to improve emergency response services in the province have included increasing the application of full-time/24-7 paramedic staffing, moving away from a dependence on overtime or on-call scheduling; working with the College of Paramedics to recruit new staff; enhancing roles of paramedics and the models of care provided throughout the province; strategically positioned ambulances in real-time to ensure timely response; and strengthening partnerships with regulatory and educational institutions, the Shared Health spokesperson said.

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp

Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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