Rural paramedics urge health minister to speed up new dispatch system

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Ottawa pulls out of tentative deal with rural paramedics

Paramedics in Prescott-Russell and Renfrew counties say Ottawa's reliance on their ambulances is putting rural lives at risk, and they're urging Ontario's minister of health and long-term care to quickly implement a new dispatch system to help fix the problem.

As the rural representatives were preparing to meet with Eric Hoskins Tuesday, news broke that a mother in Embrun, Ont., waited 30 minutes for an ambulance after her infant son had multiple seizures. The community's only ambulance had been rerouted to a call in Ottawa that was deemed higher-priority. 

"That's what we need to work to avoid," said Hoskins. "I think it was an important illustration of some of the challenges that municipalities face."

Hoskins wouldn't specifically comment on the Embrun incident, but said Ontario is committed to improving the situation that may have caused it.

Investigation found 'systemic problem'

It's been several months since an Ontario investigation found an "overall, ongoing and systemic problem" with how Ottawa dispatches paramedics.

Hoskins said the province will follow up on the report's recommendations in coming weeks. 

Renfrew County's paramedic Chief Michael Nolan said the situation is "absolutely life or death," and getting worse all the time.

Nolan, who represented both counties at the meeting with Hoskins, said Prescott-Russell has sent crews to Ottawa more than 1,000 times over the past year. 

"This isn't an exceptional basis anymore. It's actually a deliberate draw of rural paramedic services to not only subsidize, but to become the response agency for the City of Ottawa," Nolan said.

The issue has been a source of frustration among Ottawa's surrounding communities for years, but Nolan said it's only getting worse. 

"Enough is enough. The city needs to take care of its residents and if it's extraordinary we're here for you, but extraordinary has become routine."

Problem rooted in triage system

Nolan said at the root of the problem is the way calls are triaged by Ottawa's dispatch system. 

The city calls in help from surrounding areas when there is no crew available to handle a Code 4 call — the highest level of emergency. 

But those calls aren't always serious enough to warrant the Code 4 designation, Nolan said. 

"I believe that there's consensus that [the dispatch system is] antiquated and over-triages," said Nolan. "It errs to the side of caution to an extraordinary amount."

That means paramedics from surrounding communities are often called in to deal with patients who have simply slipped and fallen, because dispatchers didn't get enough information to properly assess the situation. 

Cancelled calls

Adding to the frustration, those calls are often cancelled — sometimes up to four times per shift.

"Increasingly we're getting called and then cancelled," explained Nolan, who said paramedics sometimes drive for 20 minutes before getting the call to turn back home.

"That is not only frustrating. It's using our resources, frankly, as a pawn within their system."

On Tuesday Hoskins told Nolan and others that a new dispatch system will help solve that problem. 

"We've made a commitment to replace the computer software, the dispatch system, for one which is much better in determining the severity of a particular incident," Hoskins told CBC. 

"It allows ambulance services to better allocate their ambulances and their staff."

The new technology has a higher code for the most serious calls, eliminating some of the ambiguity surrounding the current system. 

Nolan said rural paramedics are happy with the health minister's response to their concerns, but will push for the new system to be implemented more quickly in Ottawa.

"Every night, every weekend that goes by, we're all holding our breath, hoping that our crews are where they're supposed to be — and that's in their own municipality," Nolan said.