Ottawa has already hit 'level zero' with no available ambulances 526 times this year

·4 min read
The Ottawa Paramedic Service recorded 526 'level zero' instances where no ambulances were available between Jan. 1 and May 25, 2022, according to an update from city staff. (Danny Globerman/CBC - image credit)
The Ottawa Paramedic Service recorded 526 'level zero' instances where no ambulances were available between Jan. 1 and May 25, 2022, according to an update from city staff. (Danny Globerman/CBC - image credit)

There have already been 526 instances this year where no Ottawa ambulances were available to respond to calls, according to city staff.

That's compared to the 45 that were recorded during the same time period —Jan. 1 to May 25 — last year, according to an update to the city's community and protective services committee ahead of its meeting on June 16.

It's called "level zero" and refers to a situation where all ambulances are already on a call or waiting to off-load patients, leaving none free to respond to new emergencies. It's a problem that's plagued Ottawa for years.

City staff point to a 12 per cent rise in response volume, as well as offload delays that leave paramedics tied up at hospitals, as reasons for the recent spike in numbers.

The update says paramedics have spent 25,000 hours waiting so far and at the current rate, it's estimated holdups at hospitals will leave paramedics standing still for upwards of 60,000 hours by the end of the year.

"These are precious moments and our Ottawa paramedics are doing everything they can," said Orléans Coun. Matt Luloff.

Communities across Ontario are struggling with a shortage of available ambulances, Luloff said, but local solutions only go so far.

Councillor says province needs to step up

Luloff said the provincial government needs to step up by hiring more doctors and nurses who can take care of patients at the hospital and let paramedics get back on the road.

"At the local level we are really showing our willingness to help tackle this problem, but we really, really need the Ministry of Health to step up and be a true partner in ensuring that the citizens of Ottawa get timely ambulatory service," he said.

"It'll save lives. It's just so important."

The ministry did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Hospital officials have said in years past that the situation is unacceptable and have also ask the province to provide more nurses, but offload delays continue to be a problem.

Luloff said paramedics are stuck providing primary care for patients at emergency departments when they should be responding to calls for service, leaving the city in a "vulnerable position" that could mean a slower response to an emergency.

Matthew Kupfer/CBC
Matthew Kupfer/CBC

The staff update outlines steps the Ottawa Paramedic Service has taken to try to free up more ambulances, including a remote monitoring program with Montfort Hospital that provides care for patients with specific chronic conditions or surgeries.

The first three months of the program saw return visits to the emergency department fall from 67 per cent to 11 per cent, it says.

A mental wellbeing partnership that pairs a paramedic with a mental health professional from The Ottawa Hospital to form a team that responds to non-violent 911 calls has completed more than 100 calls already and 65 per cent of the time, care was provided in the community, not at an emergency department, staff said.

Situation is 'unsustainable'

Another way the service is working to limit delays is through the creation of a new role — patient flow paramedics. They're stationed at the Queensway Carleton Hospital and at the Ottawa Hospital's general campus emergency departments and can monitor up to three patients, allowing the crew that brought the patients in to go respond to other calls.

Luloff said local paramedics are doing everything they can, but the province is downloading its responsibility onto the city and service, leaving them to shoulder the responsibility and causing a "great deal of stress."

The union that represents Ottawa paramedics surveyed its members in January and found 98 per cent felt the service didn't have enough staff. Two-thirds also reported that workplace stress was so high their co-workers were in distress.

Ottawa typically hires 14 new paramedics a year, but Luloff said he wasn't sure that would be enough to keep up with the city's growth, especially if up to a dozen are tied up at a single hospital at a time.

"I believe that what we're dealing with now is entirely unsustainable," the councillor said.

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