Ambulance calls have increased dramatically in the past five years in Winnipeg, and it appears to be taking a toll on paramedics.
680 CJOB has learned that in 2019, paramedics responded to 89,311 calls, up 32 per cent from 67,633 in 2015.
However, the number of ambulances on the road has remained the same at 28. Seventeen of those run 24 hours a day, with 11 more running at peak times for 12 hours a day, according to the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS).
Christian Schmidt, WFPS deputy chief, said the increase could be the result of serving a larger population.
“I think, largely, we’re looking at possibly population growth,” Schmidt said.
The increase in calls comes at the same time as an increase in sick days. In 2016, paramedics and firefighters took 8,293 sick days, according to the WFPS. In 2019, that number rose about 13 per cent to 9,399 sick days.
The WFPS said it wasn’t able to break down why people took sick days, as its staff are not required to report the nature of their illness.
There are statistics the WFPS keeps track of to get an idea of how much pressure paramedics are under, said Schmidt, including the number of minutes per month when there are no ambulances available.
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“It is increasing,” he said. “When we look at those numbers over the course of a 12-month period for 2019, we see those numbers starting to creep up back to levels that we had seen in the early 2000s.”
Response times are also increasing, said Schmidt.
“We look at a target of eight minutes, 59 seconds to have an emergency ambulance at a patient’s side. We’re starting to see numbers now increasing up to 13 minutes.”
With funding remaining at 2016 levels, the increase in response times has meant the WFPS has had to make internal changes to manage the differences, Schmidt said.
A change in inter-facility transport is one adjustment the WFPS has made, he explained.
“At one time, we had dedicated ambulances that solely did inter-facility transports,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes, ambulances moving between facilities … were empty. So in other words, going from one site to another to pick up patients, so we’ve moved … to a model where any ambulance in the system can do an inner facility transport.”
Despite that, Schmidt said internal changes can no longer handle the increase in numbers.
“Last year’s calendar, we’re past the point,” he said.
The WFPS needs six more ambulances at a cost of $16 million to $20 million, according to Schmidt.
About a year ago, Manitoba announced the purchase of 65 new ambulances, but they were mainly for rural Manitoba.
Shared Health refused an interview with Global News and in an emailed statement said:
“In 2019, Shared Health assumed responsibility for the planning, delivery, and oversight of provincial emergency medical transport and patient transport. This included a mandate to improve emergency medical care and build a more consistent, integrated approach to Emergency Response Services by working with all service providers, including Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Services.
Across the system, we regularly monitor patient call volumes as our population ages and patients experience more complex illnesses. We continue to work closely with Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living and our service partners, including WFPS, to allocate resources as effectively as possible to help meet the needs of our patients.”
In an emailed statement Health Minister Cameron Friesen said provincial funding to the WFPS has increased from $20.6 million in 2015/2016 to nearly $38 million this fiscal year, and noted WFPS received 15 new replacement ambulances in the fall.
“These increases to funding – even after accounting for ambulance fee reductions and wages – are among the highest annual increases anywhere in the health system,” Friesen wrote.
— With files from Lauren McNabb