Ambulance sirenThe staffing crisis in Niagara’s Emergency Medical Services has worsened during the ongoing Omicron wave and requires immediate attention as critical ambulance shortages grow, says CUPE 911.

Niagara EMS service is witnessing frequent Code Zeros, occasions when there are no ambulances available to respond to 911 calls.

“On Friday last week, we were in Code Zero for nine consecutive hours. For nine hours there was no one available to respond to people in our communities requiring emergency medical care. This is unacceptable,” said Jon Brunarski, an active paramedic and president of CUPE 911. “We immediately need more full-time staff and more ambulances to respond to 911 calls.”

In a survey conducted in October, 93 per cent of CUPE 911 members said that they did not have enough staff to meet rising demand.

Brunarski said that due to the staffing shortage, Niagara EMS has resorted to sending taxis to low-acuity patients to transport them to hospitals, when they require the medical expertise of paramedics to provide appropriate care.

Niagara EMS’s recent hiring of 37 part-time paramedics is not sufficient to handle the current level of call volumes when more full-time staff are needed, said Brunarski. He said the service has been prioritizing cost-containment over the wellbeing of workers and patients alike.

Chronic understaffing for years before the pandemic has created a vicious cycle as heavy workloads have led to increasing number of paramedics and dispatchers taking off due to injuries – both physical and mental.

Increasing call volumes and lengthier offload delays in the pandemic exacerbated the situation with 100 per cent of respondents to CUPE’s survey noting that workloads had increased during the pandemic. Eighty-eight per cent said that their workload was harming their wellbeing.

“This is not just the result of COVID-19 but a crisis long in the making. Niagara EMS has not made significant investments in staffing or ambulances in the last decade,” Brunarski said. “At the same time, our population has grown and aged, so workloads have been increasing. Paramedics are routinely denied breaks at work, and more and more of us are getting injured or just simply burning out.” 

Morale in the service is very low as workers have lost faith in the employer, with 81 per cent in CUPE’s survey saying they did not feel supported by management.