Earlier this week, paramedics in Windsor-Essex experienced Code Blacks two nights in a row.
That's a roughly 10 to 15-minute period of time with no ambulances available to respond to 911 calls.
"We're playing Russian roulette, where we don't know when the next major critical event is going to happen to our community," said James Jovanovic, president of the paramedics' union, CUPE 2974.
"For instance, the explosion in Wheatley, where at least we had an advanced warning where we were able to get trucks available and get them prepared around the perimeter of that area. But if something were to happen without warning and we were in one of these situations, it is incredibly alarming as to what that result would look like."
EMS Chief Bruce Krauter said there is still strain on local hospitals despite a decrease in Covid-19 hospitalizations because of an increase of non-virus related patients. He said the patients have had to wait for treatment during the pandemic as their conditions continued to worsen. Now, they're finally seeking the help they need, but it's adding to the strain on local hospitals.
Jovanovic said the community is already seeing the smaller-scale consequences of this strain on the healthcare system.
"I saw one report from our members that there was a 911 call with a 45-minute estimated response time. And that's because you're traveling essentially across the county. And I believe in this instance, it was traveling to downtown Windsor for the call from further in the county."
When ambulance availability becomes scarce, Don McArthur, communications manager for the County of Essex, said dispatchers are forced to triage 911 calls by severity to spread out services. Jovanovic said for a lower-priority call — for example, an elderly person who has fallen down — they might have to wait 12 to 13 hours on the ground until an ambulance arrives.
"If we aren't taking care of the paramedics that we currently have, then the system is still going to theoretically collapse at the end of the day." - James Jovanovic, president of the paramedics union, CUPE Local 2974
He said there were delays of this length last Tuesday.
"Because there's no way of knowing whether or not there's an underlying injury or a medical condition that causes them to fall, they're automatically placed into lower severity. But without our trained paramedics actually able to go and assess the patient, we're not entirely sure what the cause is until we get there... And then it compounds the issue and is much more severe by the time we are actually able to get them to the hospital."
EMS Chief Bruce Krauter said he has elevated these concerns to the provincial level, pointing to a need for more hospital beds to take pressure off of the already-strained paramedic services.
Krauter added that on Wednesday, Chatham-Kent EMS also experienced a Code Black alongside Essex-Windsor EMS. That left local paramedics with less support to fall back on in case of a big emergency.
Hiring and worker retention
Jovanovic said one issue is the shortage of paramedics across the country.
"The Canadian Occupational Projection System found that we're going to need [about] 4,000 paramedics in the next year or two across Canada. So we have every service in Ontario competing for a very limited amount of bodies."
But he says retention is also key.
"We just hired recently a total of, I believe it was six paramedics, but we also had six resignations over a two month period around that same time. So we had a net gain of essentially zero," he said, adding more investment is needed to prevent burnout.
"If we aren't taking care of the paramedics that we currently have, then the system is still going to theoretically collapse at the end of the day."
To help, Krauter said a small portion of their budget has been allocated to worker retention.
The money is used to give paramedics more breaks and provide them with daily food and drink refreshments. He said this brand-new initiative to help paramedics began last year in late fall.