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Union calls for increased resources, more awareness of paramedic needs

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/SEFPO) Local 462 is calling for public awareness and action, and exhorting Frontenac County Council to advocate for the urgently needed staffing and resources for paramedic services. 

One of the ambulances of Frontenac Paramedic Services. Photo by Daniel Tastard-Homer.

OPSEU/SEFPO Local 462 represents around 200 paramedics employed by Frontenac Paramedic Services, as well as ambulance communications officers (ACOs) of the Kingston Central Ambulance Communications Centre (CACC). Both full-time and part-time members provide emergency medical services to the City of Kingston and Frontenac County residents and visitors, 24 hours daily, 365 days per year. Frontenac paramedics respond to over 23,000 calls annually, according to the County. 

During the current call to action, Dave Doran, OPSEU Local 462 Vice President, explained that the call volumes for paramedics have been rising steadily, but front-line staffing has not been kept up accordingly. Additionally, with the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, current staff have been working more hours, often leading to overstrain and burnout, Doran said. 

Frontenac County confirmed that call volumes have increased amid the latest wave of COVID-19, noting this is the case across the province.

The Primary and Advanced Care Paramedics employed by Frontenac Paramedic Services provide specialized pre-hospital medical care and emergency transport, as well as non-urgent community care and public health initiatives for vulnerable persons.

According to Doran, the unit hour utilization (UHU) used to assess the required availability of paramedic staff and ambulances is an inaccurate representation of the actual workload. 

“We need the Chief of Paramedics to ask for additional resources,” he said. 

Doran said that, at the last County Council meeting, Chief of Paramedics, Gale Chevalier, stated that the County is not meeting the 70 per cent response times for the Canadian Triage and Acuity Scale (CTAS) level 1 call at the standard required. Additionally, he asserted that the County has used the UHU of <0.35 several times, leading to the determination that there was no need for additional resources, and justified using this metric because it is used across the Province, Doran relayed. Furthermore, he said, Chief Chevalier had stated that the UHU for 2020 was 0.44, while in September 2021, the UHU was 0.55, implying the need for more resources.

Doran expressed that the UHU metric does not consider all the additional time spent on administrative paperwork, standbys, vehicle cleaning and restocking, hospital wait times, etc., which paramedics experience daily. 

“Our paramedics are stressed out, burnt out. They’re really at the breaking point,” he said. “They deserve to be supported and have enough ambulances on the road.”

Doran conveyed that the County currently plans to have new ambulances on the road: one 12-hour service ambulance in 2023, and another one in 2026. But, “the need is of some action right now, and [to] get ambulances on the road to provide service 24/7 due to the increased need,” he said.

“Not having enough ambulances and paramedics is a public safety issue for Kingston and Frontenac County,” Doran added. 

For their part, the County pointed to actions they have already taken to address the issue at hand comprehensively. 

“The County of Frontenac takes the health and welfare of all our employees seriously, including dedicated front-line paramedics and long-term care staff. The pandemic has had far-reaching implications for every front-line healthcare worker in the province,” said Kelly Pender, Chief Administrative Officer of County of Frontenac

Concerning Frontenac Paramedic Services, Pender said that the County has been active on two fronts: leading and embracing the province’s Community Paramedicine program, and approving ongoing funding to implement increased staffing levels.

Early in 2021, the County began implementing a robust community paramedicine program by hiring a team of full-time paramedics to work proactively by serving the residents of Kingston and Frontenac. They help prevent emergency hospital visits and provide support to allow seniors to stay in their homes longer with a higher quality of life. The Province of Ontario has supported this program with a grant of $6.2M. 

Currently, the County has completed interviews and has tendered offers to 20 new paramedics joining the team next month. 

“We remain fully committed to this program,” Pender added. 

Also in 2021, the County added a new 12-hour shift in the west end of the City of Kingston. And, as part of the 2022 County budget, Council approved an ongoing increase to the budget to further increase the number of paramedics in the community, to construct new paramedic stations to improve coverage in high call volume areas, and to provide comfortable accommodations for staff, according to Pender.

“While the pandemic has increased the cost of real estate, we are confident that a new station location will be announced soon,” he said. 

Finally, the County said they continue to benchmark the service against other similar services in Eastern Ontario, and anticipate an increased call demand of 4.5 per cent over the next seven to 10 years. 

“By working proactively with the Province and planning for service growth, we can best ensure the highest level of service possible to the residents we serve,” said Pender. 

The 2022 paramedic budget is $20M, with almost 80 per cent of that budget dedicated to salaries. 

The Union, however, feels the new hires are only enough to cover the vacancies created by the retired personnel, or people on extended leave or who are sick, and there is a need for more robust hiring for new staff. 

“It’s not going to increase the level of service offered to the community,” Doran said of the 20 new hires the County confirmed on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2022.

“This is a public safety issue, and there’s not enough to service the calls that we’re getting. Patients have to wait for an ambulance, and it’s uncertain in some circumstances,” he expressed. “Patients can’t wait.”

Doran implored the public to know about the issues he outlined, and to pressure their municipality to come up with plans — plans that are sufficient to address these needs, and the public safety issues those needs create.

Requests for interview with Chief Chevalier through Frontenac County were redirected to CAO Pender.

For more information on OPSEU Local 462 and the current call to action, visit their Facebook Page. For more information on Frontenac County Council and their meetings, or to view video footage of the full meetings, visit the County Council page on the Frontenac County website, or go to the Frontenac County CivicWeb Portal.

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