Rally shines a flashing light on Kingston area’s paramedic staffing crisis

OPSEU members and concerned citizens gathered at the corner of Princess Street and Gardiners Road on Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2022. Photo by Cris Vilela.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2022, a determined crowd of approximately 80 to 100 OPSEU Local 462 paramedics, ambulance dispatch communication officers, local politicians, and other concerned citizens converged at the corners of Princess Street and Gardiners Road, carrying signs with stark messages about the current state of paramedic availability in the Kingston region.

“The service is in crisis right now,” said Dave Doran, Vice-President of OPSEU Local 462. “Paramedics are burnt out, they’re having a difficult time responding to the amount of call volume there is within the city of Kingston.”

Doran noted that while population growth has led to increased demand on ambulance services, additional ambulances and paramedics have not been added to meet that demand. “We’re estimating based on the data that two more ambulances are needed immediately, and then additional ambulances every year to keep the service viable… We definitely need more paramedics also, to operate those ambulances. So we’re hoping for between 30 and 50 more paramedics.”

A shortage of ambulances can lead to a precarious situation known in the healthcare system as Code Zero. “Code Zero is when there are no ambulances available to service calls,” Doran explained. “So [all] ambulances could be offloading at the hospital, or on another call. There’s been several circumstances when an ambulance is responding to the city of Kingston from our station in Robertsville [north of Sharbot Lake], and that’s obviously over an hour.”

Wayne Hill, Kingston City Councillor for the Lakeside district, noted that there are significant problems with the functionality of ambulance and paramedic services in the region that stem back to the administration’s structural inception. “Back when the province was sort of downloading responsibilities to the municipalities, one of the services that was being downloaded was ambulances. In most areas, almost all areas, the larger municipalities had jurisdiction over larger services. In this case, in Kingston’s case, housing and social services were downloaded to the City, but ambulance service was downloaded to the County of Frontenac.”

Jeff McLaren, Kingston City Councillor for the Meadowbrook-Strathcona district, was also participating in the rally, and agreed with his colleague. “I think that a huge mistake was made when [oversight of the ambulance services] was given to the County of Frontenac… What happens right now is that [the County of Frontenac] basically gives us a bill. We don’t have any oversight. We don’t have any ability to make corrections or offer advice. And the result is that they’ve cut ambulances in Kingston, where they’re probably needed the most.”

Councillor Hill noted that accountability is a major systemic problem. “In our area, one of the things that’s particularly problematic is that the City of Kingston pays 85 per cent of the local levy for ambulance and paramedic services, and the County of Frontenac makes all the decisions… [It’s] not a very representative system when the people who are spending that money are not accountable to the people who paid. So it’s a big problem in our area in particular, and until it’s addressed, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to really serve the residents of Kingston.”

However, Councillor Hill added, area residents outside of the city face service-related delays and issues under the current system. “Even in terms of the County of Frontenac, when they pick up a patient in Sharbot Lake and they bring them into Kingston, the chances that everyone’s getting back to that base before three or four hours are pretty slim. They have to wait in emergency rooms or they get calls — once they’re in Kingston they get called to respond to Kingston issues.”

Rally participant and mayoral candidate for South Frontenac Township Mark Schjerning noted that his career path has given him a deep understanding of the current state of affairs. “I’m a former paramedic from Kingston; I’m a former Local [union] president… and I just retired recently as the Chief of Emergency Services in Lennox and Addington County. So I understand the paramedic role.”

Schjerning echoed Councillor Hill’s concerns about the effects on smaller communities and rural areas. “We have a base in Sydenham. And because Kingston is so busy, the Sydenham base vehicle gets brought in for standby coverage. And inevitably they will get a call, and then they get another call, and another call, and more often than not, they’re not there so that is affecting response times. So the northern bases, if you will, outside the city, are getting pulled in because the city is so busy and then calls aren’t being responded to.”

Councillor McLaren stated that his recommendation would be for a complete shift in administration of ambulance services. “What I would like to see is for it to be moved over to the City of Kingston, which is a much bigger organization, and we have the expertise to manage this better. And right now, it seems that it’s being mismanaged. We’re not getting any information on anything and as a result of this, the people aren’t being heard.”

As someone outside of the inner circles of municipal politics, Dave Doran noted that he certainly does feel unheard. He expressed frustration that from his perspective, Frontenac Council seemed to be ignoring the crisis. “The data was given to Council last budget session, showing the need for more ambulances, and Council has been silent on the issue. They’ve obviously seen this issue in the media in the last couple of months. And they’ve been relatively silent. Nothing happened; [they’re] not asking any questions.”

Councillor McLaren says that the system itself is tying Kingston City Council’s hands. “We have no say in this,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem right. It’s like taxation without representation. That’s essentially the reason I’m here: we need better service, and we need better management, and I think the City can do it much better.”

Smokey Thomas, former President of OPSEU, observed that even beyond the administrative structure, there have been other long-simmering issues that have finally come to a boil in this crisis. “It’s been a problem really almost two decades in the making… In healthcare, successive governments have all been guilty of this, cutting back positions for trades. Be it nurses, paramedics — they were trimming back the seats that were going to be available. We were sounding the alarm bells about how the boomers were going to retire, which was going to create huge problems in and of itself, and then we had to get hit with a pandemic. So a lot of people that were close to retirement said, ‘To heck with it, I’m going!’ So now they’ve got this real crunch, and [it takes] three years to train up paramedics,” Thomas lamented.

“So now the problem for hospitals, government, all healthcare agencies is how do we entice people to get into these occupations? Support them in training! Get into the high schools, talk to the high school kids when they’re making their life choices, actually bring in paramedics… who can talk about future careers,” urged Thomas. “But in the short term, [the question] is what are you gonna do to handle the crisis that you’re currently in.”

Brandon Tozzo, President of OPSEU 468, is running in the Kingston municipal election to seek the Council seat representing Kingscourt-Rideau district, and he noted that the long haul of the COVID-19 may have led to some collective empathy fatigue. “I think that we all realized during the pandemic, the value of frontline service workers, but now that the pandemic at least seems to be wearing on, we seem to be forgetting, don’t we. We looked them in the eye and told them that their labour was essential two years ago. Well, I think we have to remind people that their labour and their lives are essential. We need to all support them — as a community, as a city, and as a province. I’m here to throw my support on the line for paramedics, the work that they do and I will support them now, and I will support them on City Council.”

Jacqui Collier, who is running for the Loyalist-Cataraqui seat on Kingston City Council, also attended the rally and called for renewed empathy and support. “As I’m canvassing, I’ve been speaking to [paramedics], and they feel like they haven’t been heard. They’re burnt out. There is a lot that’s been going on that that needs to be changed, that needs to be improved for them… We need our paramedics, and all our healthcare workers. They have our backs when we are at our most vulnerable, and we need for them to know that we have their backs and as a city we need to be there. We need to advocate for them.”

Joining the voices of support from Kingston City Council, Ryan Boehme, Councillor for Pittsburgh District, was also present at the rally. “It is more critical than ever that we support our front-line services,” he said. “We are seeing burnout at an unprecedented rate, and the pandemic placed an even greater load on them. We need to ensure that whenever someone calls 9-1-1 there are resources there to aid them. I feel that everyone in the community would agree this is a critical service that needs our support.” 

Passers-by honked their horns and shouted encouragement to the rally attendees, and the demonstrators all expressed hope that community support would be much more long-lived and impactful than one single afternoon. “Once the public understands the need for more ambulances, we hope that in the upcoming municipal election that people make their vote count,” said Doran. “We need more ambulances to make this a safe community.”

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