Amid staffing shortages, ambulance coverage gaps persist in urban and rural N.B. ‘daily’

Click to play video: 'Paramedics union concerned over lack of ambulance availability' Paramedics union concerned over lack of ambulance availability
The paramedics union is sounding the alarm over the availability of ambulances in New Brunswick – Oct 29, 2020

The president of the union representing paramedics and dispatchers in New Brunswick acknowledges a significant fix to the paramedic shortage won’t come overnight.

But Andrew McLean, president of CUPE 4848, says the issue needs to be addressed before it’s too late.

At one point Tuesday night, when Moncton was “fully staffed” for day and night shifts, all ambulances in the province’s largest city were on calls, including offloading patients at a hospital.

“At that point, ambulances from other stations were called in to provide coverage for that brief period, as per our dynamic deployment system,” a statement from Ambulance New Brunswick said.

McLean says that’s not good enough.

“We have to look outside what we’re currently doing because right now, it’s not working,” he said.

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McLean says when calls pile up, as they did on Tuesday, it can leave urban areas with one or even no available ambulances.

“As soon as that happens, they start bringing in the rural areas to try to cover,” McLean said. “But sometimes, if you’ve got four or five calls come in within half an hour, the rural units are en route but they’re not there yet. So it happens, well, I would say daily, that you run into very low units available to respond to a call.”

And that subsequently also leaves the rural area shorthanded.

“Between 40 and 60 medics a day are working overtime shifts,” McLean said.

The village of Belledune was an area highlighted with a poor response time in a recent, scathing report from the province’s auditor general.

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New Brunswick languages commissioner applauds new bilingual ambulance policy – Jan 22, 2019

“One of the problems we see right now, in this municipality, is that people are not waiting for an ambulance or calling for an ambulance,” said Belledune Mayor Joe Noel. “They’re putting people in their cars and they’re driving to the hospital because it takes 35 to 40 minutes to get an ambulance here… And that’s a dangerous situation.”

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But aside from the shortage, McLean says offload delays also compound the problem. That is the time when paramedics are waiting for a patient to be admitted to hospital before they can take another call.

“That can go (anywhere) from 15 minutes to 10 hours,” McLean says. “So it’s quite a common practice, unfortunately, nowadays.”

McLean blames part of that on cutbacks in the health-care system over the years.

But he says when paramedics are on scene, “we’re supplying a good service.”

“The issue isn’t when we arrive, the issue is when we arrive.”

Read more: New vehicles coming to Ambulance NB fleet in attempt to cut rural wait times

Ambulance New Brunswick acknowledges that health-care professions across the country are facing staffing challenges, and “paramedicine is no different.”

Jean-Pierre Savoie, Ambulance New Brunswick’s vice-president, says in September, there were “93 full-time equivalent vacancies, which has trended downward from the 150 when ANB was created.”

“Coverage gaps are certainly an inherent risk in the emergency medical services industry,” Savoie said in a statement. “But our dynamic deployment system, which moves ANB units depending on needs and call volumes, mitigates these risks.”

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Savoie says recruitment is ongoing both within New Brunswick’s borders and outside the province. Officials are also considering recruiting candidates internationally, Savoie says.

Savoie says 911 call volumes have “seen a steady increase in recent years.”

New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard wasn’t made available for an interview Thursday, and the department didn’t issue a statement in response to the ongoing staffing shortages.

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