Overworked and facing a labour shortage, Urgences-santé paramedics are struggling to keep up with the influx in calls.
During the overnight shift last weekend, only half of the scheduled personnel were on hand to respond to emergencies in the area of Montreal and Laval.
“I have been around for 37 years and I have never seen the situation this bad,” said Luc Baumont, spokesperson for the Fédération de la Santé et des Services sociaux (FSSS).
According to Urgencse-santé spokesperson Chantal Comeau, only 53 of the 106 scheduled paramedics reported for duty over the weekend, leaving only a fleet of 25 ambulances to cover the territory.
“We have 1,000 calls a day for both islands and 25 ambulances to cover the overnight shift is not enough,” Baumont said.
With limited resources, teams are forced to make difficult decisions when triaging calls, leading to sometimes fatal mistakes, Baumont said.
A patient died while waiting several hours before paramedics arrived.
“A low priority call got delayed so long, when the team was finally dispatched to the call they arrived and the person had passed away, ” Baumont said.
Comeau says the incident is being investigated to see if delays played a factor.
Comeau called the weekend events rare, saying a labour shortage paired with paramedics on COVID-19 preventative leave are the reason for the lack of first responders on duty during the weekend shift.
“At certain times, longer times are to be expected when the call is not urgent because we are focusing all our resources in order to have a timely response when a life may be at risk,” Comeau said.
She claims that the call centres have seen an increase in demand since the nice weather, fielding 1,400 calls a day.
“During days like last weekend everything is being done to ensure a fast response to high priority calls. But longer delays are to be expected,” Comeau said.
Forced to pick up the slack, paramedics are overworked, Baumont says, with crews being forced to work 16-hour shifts if necessary.
He claims this past weekend was not an exception. Forced overtime has become a common occurrence among first responders.
“For the last couple of months we have been in preventative measure action virtually every single day,” Baumont said.
“When I say they are mentally and physically exhausted, it’s no exaggeration. To say they are demoralised is an understatement,” said retired paramedic Hal Newman of the first responders on active duty.
Newman now closely follows and reports on the issues in the industry. On his Facebook page, the Last Ambulance, hundreds of first responders have confided in him reporting difficult working conditions.
Newman called the recent weekend staffing a crisis, one that has been brewing for some time.
“These medics are already exhausted and then they are told ‘your staying on until four in the morning and there won’t be any breaks.’ It’s just going to be call after call and the patients you’re going to go see have been waiting for hours,” Newman said. “This is the heavy burden paramedics have to bear on their shoulders.”
“We are experiencing a challenge for the overnight shift but it is not as significant as last weekend. We will be keeping a close eye on the situation,” Comeau said of current staff levels.
Urgences-santé is in the process of conducting a hiring blitz looking to increase its number of first responders on the road.
Comeau says the health authority is also looking to hire nurses to help field emergency phone calls at the centre to offer a secondary evaluation.
Comeau urges the public to consider the severity of their injury before dialling 9-1-1, while reminding the public that a certified nurse is always available to assess patients over the phone by calling 8-1-1.