Paramedics across northwestern Ontario are ringing the alarm and are calling on the province for more support and resources, as staff warn of a ‘major crisis of care’ in the Kenora district.

“We can’t continue with the status quo,” says CUPE 5911 president and active paramedic, Derek Hamilton. “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.”

In a prepared statement, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 5911 Union, who work under the Kenora District Services Board’s Northwest EMS, are lobbying to improve ambulance coverage for patients and the area, as well as working conditions for local paramedics.

“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,” explains Hamilton.

CUPE says ambulance wait times can be upwards of two hours in the area, and too often, care is delayed due to staffing shortages, high call volumes and a limited number of ambulances. As well, shortages can also impact low-acuity patients, such as a senior who fell at their home and may have to wait hours for help.

“Any delay can have life-long negative impacts on patients,” adds Hamilton. “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.”

As well, CUPE is calling for further investments into community healthcare as part of a solution to reduce the demand for emergency medical services, like ambulances.

Vice-President of CUPE 5911, Nicole Runge, says 911 call volumes, which have continued to increase without a corresponding increase in staffing levels, could be reduced if people had better access to services such as mental health and addiction supports, family doctors and affordable housing.

“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 emergency room department,” says Runge.

The KDSB’s Chief Administrative Officer, Henry Wall, noted last week was Paramedic Services Recognition Week, and he took the time to thank local paramedics for what they’ve done and what they continue to do, especially throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our paramedics stepped up in a really, really big way. And things are changing in our communities. When you look at the call volume change across the district, it is concerning. Workloads are increasing. Our crews are busier than ever. That is substantial. Our communities need to be aware of that,” adds Wall.

Wall notes that ambulance call volumes have increased by roughly 19 per cent across the region between 2019 and 2021, with increases of over 30 per cent in Sioux Lookout and Red Lake.