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Is the Urgences-santé dispatcher shortage causing deadly delays?

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Is Urgences-santé dispatcher shortage causing deadly delays?
WATCH: Concerns are once again being raised about staff shortages at Urgences-Santé after an eight- month-old child died following a call to 911 this week. – Jun 17, 2022

Concerns are once again being raised about staff shortages at Urgences-santé after an eight-month-old child died following a call to 911 earlier this week.

Outside the Urgences-santé headquarters on Jarry Street, T-shirts hang on 14 wooden crosses, a protest and a tribute to staff who’ve left the organization in the last few months.

“People leave this work because obviously they’re underpaid,” insisted Richard Poitras, a dispatcher with the ambulance service and the vice-president of the local union.

Among the teams affected are dispatchers – it’s a shortage Poitras said could be the reason the infant died.

“We have seven or eight dispatchers usually,” he explained, “so we were half the staff on that day.”

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Wednesday morning a call was sent to the Urgences-santé dispatch center about an eight-month-old in distress.

“When we received the call at our call centre we were receiving a high volume of calls,” spokesperson Chantal Comeau told Global News.

Emergency medical calls to 911 are rerouted to the Urgences-santé call centre but that day, because they were so busy, Comeau explained that none of the dispatchers could take the call via phone, so 911 sent the message electronically.

Click to play video: 'Urgences-santé paramedics struggling to keep up with emergency calls amid labour shortage'
Urgences-santé paramedics struggling to keep up with emergency calls amid labour shortage

When a dispatcher read the message, according to Comeau, they assigned it to an ambulance driver as a level three, a 20-minute response time.

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She said the same dispatcher tried to call the family member on site but didn’t reach anyone.

“The first people who got on the scene was the police and once they got there they noticed that unfortunately the baby wasn’t breathing,” the spokesperson explained.

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In an email, Montreal police wrote that they called Urgences-santé to alert them to the nature of the emergency. The ambulance service said they raised the urgency level, but when they arrived the police had already rushed the infant to hospital, where it died.

Poitras believes if there were more of his fellow dispatchers on site that day, it is likely one of them would’ve been free to take the call, better assess the urgency and alert first responders that were two minutes away.

“The Westmount station is not too far so at least they would’ve had the first responders quickly,” he stressed.

According to Urgences-santé the ambulance arrived 16 minutes after the initial call.

Comeau pointed out that there were five dispatchers working that day, the minimum required, but that normally there would’ve been more if not for the shortage.

“We always try to have more than the minimum in order to ensure high quality of service,” she said.

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Both the union and the ambulance service blame the pandemic and burnout for low staff, but Poitras noted that people don’t like what he describes as low pay as well as forced overtime, saying staff regularly leave for the police call centre where the pay is higher.

One former paramedic says he’s surprised more people haven’t died because of the staffing problems.

“Urgences-santé has been failing for some time,” argued Hal Newman who also writes about health issues in the province. “If you ignore the problem for a decade or so eventually the system is gonna collapse, and we’re at that point.”

Comeau said her organization plans to hire 20 paramedics and 14 dispatchers this summer.

Dispatchers are negotiating for higher pay.

The Quebec coroner’s office has opened an investigation into the death of the infant.

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