Winnipeg firefighters being sent to ‘dangerous’ non-fire calls, alleges union

Click to play video: '911 sent WFPS to call of man ‘falling in and out of consciousness’'
911 sent WFPS to call of man ‘falling in and out of consciousness’
WATCH: Winnipeg police Deputy Chief Gord Perrier explains the emergency call that sparked complaints about firefighters being sent to calls that should be attended by police instead – Feb 27, 2019

The president of the local firefighters union alleges his members are being sent to “dangerous” situations in place of police and claims his concerns are going unanswered by officials.

Alex Forrest, president of UFFW 867, said in a statement sent to media Wednesday that firefighters “are being sent to emergency calls that are not fire or EMS emergencies but Police matters.”

“It appears that this is due to an inadequate number of police officers available to respond,” he said in the statement.

Forrest pointed to an incident on Feb. 16 in which he said fire crews were sent to a downtown Winnipeg hotel to deal with a drunk patron who refused to leave.

RAW: The Start host speaks with UFFW president Alex Forrest:

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“The incident [report] basically said that there was no medical emergency, so they sent the firefighters, because it appeared that there was no police available,” he told 680 CJOB.

Firefighters waited for more than two hours for police cadets to show and when they did, the drunk patron pulled out a gun, Forrest claimed.

The two cadets and two firefighters were required to bring the man under control, Forrest added.

“The two firefighters managed to grab the man’s hand, grab the gun and kick the gun away.”

“These firefighters could well have been injured or killed in this incident,” Forrest said.

“We go on many of these calls throughout the year, and this is a brand-new protocol,” he alleged.

“We go on everything from domestic disputes from possible burglary to — these are not fire or emergency medical calls, in any way whatsoever … that’s not our job.”

The union has asked for meetings with the WFPS operations deputy and the police chief, but Forrest claimed no meetings have taken place, despite asking since November.

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“UFFW 867 is concerned that its members, untrained and unequipped to deal with police matters, must not be put in harm’s way as a result of current dispatch protocol.”

Forrest admitted people would question the timing of going public with this matter, knowing a city budget will be tabled Friday.

“It’s unfortunate timing but this is an incident that just occurred, we have to get it forward, and we just felt that we just couldn’t wait anymore.”

Mayor Brian Bowman told 680 CJOB this was the first time he had heard of Forrest’s concerns.

“He’s raising a serious matter,” said Bowman. “We want to, first and foremost, make sure that their safety is taken care of.

“I think it’s appropriate that he’s requested dialogue … obviously at City Hall we want to make sure the resources are there and we’ve increased the resources every year that I’ve been mayor for the Winnipeg Police Service.”

George Van Mackelberg of the Winnipeg Police Association said he is aware that firefighters are sometimes sent to calls involving intoxicated persons, adding that is not necessarily the best approach.

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“I know that it’s happening. There’s been a push in the city to get fire and paramedics more involved with intoxicated persons. The problem is they aren’t peace officers, they really don’t have the power to detain anybody and if it isn’t a health issue, that’s police work.”

Winnipeg police spoke about the criticism at a news conference Wednesday.

Deputy Chief Gord Perrier. Global News / File

Deputy Chief Gord Perrier said it’s not uncommon for WFPS staff to be dispatched to non-fire, non-medical calls, as part of the 911 service’s triage system.

“Paramedics and fire services examine people in the field on a regular basis,” said Perrier.

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“That’s something that happens on a regular basis each and every day. We don’t always have a police resource or a cadet resource to attend immediately in every situation.”

Perrier said the call in question didn’t initially fit the highest priority, as it was a well-being check on a man who was either sleeping or falling in and out of consciousness, and didn’t indicate any violence.

When a determination is made that an intoxicated person can’t care for themselves, he said, then a call goes into the police service requesting the person be brought into custody.

Christian Schmidt, Deputy Chief, operations and communications for WFPS, said there have been a number of recent changes to the way 911 calls are dispatched in an effort to make sure all responders – paramedics, firefighters or police – have access to real-time information about the scene they’re attending.

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“We’ve heard from all of our unions for quite some time now regarding what’s going on in the community with meth and alcohol,” said Schmidt.

“With that, we’ve been making changes to our procedures. Most recently, we introduced a new procedure in the call centre to make sure our dispatchers are providing responding crews with as much information as possible – things like the individual’s behaviour.

“With methamphetamine in particular, we know that affects people’s behaviour, and it’s important for our crews to have that information.

“We’re doing as much as we can to make sure our people on the front lines have everything they can to remain safe.”

-With files from Lauren McNabb

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