Winnipeg ambulance service needs more resources, or to pass on low-priority calls, report says

Stark choices need to be made to maintain the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) if more funding doesn’t come through, WFPS Chief John Lane said.

Lane presented a report from WFPS to the city’s protection and community service committee Monday, and said he has suggested two courses of action to Shared Health.

“We have to reduce demand or we have to increase resources,” Lane said.

One way to reduce demand is to stop accepting very low priority, non-life threatening calls for service, Lane said.

That would see some patients either wait at home much longer until transport was available, or they could be taken to doctor’s offices, clinics or other treatment facilities — but not by ambulance.

This would require new protocols currently not in place, including monitoring the call requests by physicians and new legislation to allow the changes. 

The report issues a warning to city councillors and the province of Manitoba, which funds ambulance paramedic service in Winnipeg: “Emergency response services can no longer afford to respond in an episodic fashion to calls for service,” it read.

Boost resources to keep up

On the other hand, Lane says more ambulances, more training officers and boosting the city’s community paramedic program could help the City of Winnipeg keep up with ever-increasing calls for service.

Lane told members of the protection committee the increasing demand on ambulance paramedic services tracks back several years ago as call volumes began to rise.

“We have essentially rung out this sponge as tightly as we can to get as much resource out of it as we can,” Lane told reporters Monday. 

Call volumes for ambulance services have grown by 20 per cent between 2011 and 2019, the report says, yet it contends there have been no significant investments in new equipment, training or the development of alternative methods of response to calls.

Population growth, the geographical expansion of the city and increasing demands for service because of drug use (specifically opioids and methamphetamine) have also driven up the calls.

Lane had publicly called for new ambulances earlier this month.

The cost to add 10 new ambulances is estimated at just over $20 million for labour, training and overhead. Expanding the community paramedic program would cost $1.1 million and hiring six new training officers would be an additional $1.2 million.

The City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba have been sparring for many months over resources for the ambulance service and the lack of a contract between the two governments.

WFPS chief John Lane tells protection committee chair Sherri Rollins the service needs more ambulances, community paramedics and mental health support programming for staff. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The report suggests replacing five aging ambulances and adding 10 more to the fleet, boosting the capacity of the community para-medicine program by purchasing three new response vehicles and also recruiting six additional training officer positions.

The report also suggests there has been a significant increase in stress, burnout and sick time among paramedics and firefighters.

Lane acknowledged high call volumes have placed extra pressure on staff. 

Protection and community service committee chair Sherri Rollins told reporters she supported Lane’s call for new ambulances and has seen shortcomings for responses to calls for paramedic services firsthand.

Rollins says she doesn’t support handing the keys for the ambulance paramedic service to the province, but says more resources have to be provided if WFPS is to deliver the services a growing city needs. 

Province accuses City of trying to ‘score points’

A terse response from Manitoba’s Shared Health department took issue with some of the information not contained in the report to the committee, and also took aim at the ongoing and very public dispute over the future of ambulances services in Winnipeg.

“Shared Health remains as uninterested in negotiating a multi-million dollar funding agreement with the City of Winnipeg through the media this week as we were last week and the week before,” wrote a spokesperson for Shared Health.

The province says it invested $44.68 million in the WFPS in 2020 and funding increases have gone up by nine per cent over the past two years, well above the rate of inflation.

The statement also finds fault with the WFPS report when it suggests five ambulances needed immediate replacement. Shared Health says the units have already been replaced —  three in 2011, two others in 2017.

The spokesperson says Shared Health has worked with the WFPS to “identify operational improvements that will create capacity within the service to handle increased patient volumes,” and those improvements are expected in the near future.