CUPE 5911 paramedics serving the District of Kenora are advocating for investments from the provincial and municipal governments to improve ambulance coverage for patients calling 911 and working conditions for paramedics.

In addition to more direct funding for the paramedic service, the union is also calling for investments in community health as part of a solution to reduce demand for emergency medical care.

“Due to the high call volumes, the large geographical area, and an inability to retain staff, paramedics are routinely being held back for overtime, and working 16-hour shifts to ensure community safety and emergency coverage,” said Derek Hamilton, president of CUPE 5911 and an active paramedic.

Despite the best efforts of paramedics, communities are often left without an ambulance as wait-times can be upwards of two hours, he said.

“When we respond to time-sensitive emergencies such as strokes and heart attacks, it is critical for patients to get immediate medical attention and a swift transfer to the hospital. Any delay can have life-long negative impacts on patients,” Hamilton said.

In those circumstances, patients must be transported to the hospital or a certified stroke centre in time. But care is too often delayed due to staffing shortages, high call volumes, and the limited number of ambulances.

According to the union, ambulance shortages also impact low-acuity patients, such as elderly persons requiring a lift-assist from paramedics after experiencing a fall at home, who might have to wait hours for help. 

“Kenora District residents deserve better attention from both levels of government that fund Northwest EMS, as the current set-up isn’t working for patients or staff,” Hamilton said.

According to the union, 911 call volumes have been increasing without a corresponding increase in staffing levels. While the union is advocating for more staff, it is also urging governments to invest in social determinants of health.

Nicole Runge, CUPE 5911 vice president, said that 911 call volumes could be reduced if people had better access to a range of other services including mental health and addictions support, family doctors, and affordable housing.

“We respond to calls from patients who absolutely need to get to the hospital ER. We also respond to 911 calls because people require services that are overburdened or unavailable in the north. Often when more appropriate services are unavailable, 911 is activated to deal with the incident resulting in the individual being transported to the hospital, leading to offload delays and overburdening of the ER department,” she said. 

The union says that both provincial and municipal governments must make the required investments, as paramedics are burning out due to unsustainable workloads.

“We can’t continue with status quo,” Hamilton said. “Workplace stress is causing injuries and burnout and paramedics are exhausted from increasing workloads and the lack of staff, trying to ensure communities get the care they need.”

Hamilton emphasized that “conditions of work are the conditions of care, and we are approaching a major crisis of care in our communities.”