Paramedic unions raise concern over service sharing with Waterloo region

Three of Perth County's five on-duty ambulances had to respond to emergency calls in the Region of Waterloo within the space of half an hour Friday night, leading paramedic union leaders in both regions to raise concerns over service sharing.

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The presidents of both CUPE 4514 and CUPE 5191, which represent paramedics in Perth County and the Waterloo Region respectively, are raising the alarm over the sharing of ambulance services after three of Perth County’s five ambulances responded to calls in the Waterloo Region over the space of about half an hour Friday night.

According to Blaine Lucas, chief of Perth County Paramedic Services, between 10:22 and 10:51 p.m. Friday, three Perth County ambulances were dispatched by the communications centre in London to respond to emergency calls during a spike in call volume in the Waterloo Region.

“(The) Perth County Paramedic and Region of Waterloo unions are working hard to bring this to the public as it is an extremely dangerous practice,” CUPE 4541 president Andree Martin wrote in an email Friday night. “If someone is having a heart attack in downtown Waterloo, their closest ambulance shouldn’t come from Stratford. This is unfortunately a common issue these days, but when it takes more than half of our ambulances out of the county it is absolutely unacceptable.”

Luke McCann, the Waterloo Region union president, said ambulance responses from neighbouring regions are becoming more commonplace thanks to past funding cutbacks to the Region of Waterloo Paramedic Services. On Friday, McCann said the paramedic service reached Code Red — when there aren’t enough ambulances to meet call demand — multiple times. In the course of a year, he said the paramedic service often reaches Code Red more than 50 times.

But Lucas says Perth County Paramedic Services has multiple layers of contingency in place to address such shortages in ambulances.

“Early on in the evening, we had lots of paramedic calls in the county, followed by 32 minutes of four emergency calls to our neighbour, and then the on-duty commander had to up-staff an ambulance,” he explained. “So what we do is we just call in (an) overtime shift, and then we put an ambulance on the road that wasn’t regularly scheduled. What that does is it buys us some capacity until the folks are finished their calls in Waterloo and come back to the county.”

While the three Perth County ambulances were in the Waterloo Region Friday night, Lucas said he had at the paramedic services’ disposal one ambulance, the paramedic commander vehicle, and an additional ambulance staffed with paramedics that were called in to work overtime, all of which provided enough coverage until the paramedic crew that responded to the first call in the Waterloo Region could return to the county.

“I don’t want anyone who lives in Perth County… to be worried that if you need an ambulance, you’re not going to get one because we’re in Waterloo,” he said.

Perth County Warden Walter McKenzie says these kinds of shortages are a fact of life for paramedic services in Ontario, where the closest ambulance is required by law to respond to a call for emergency service, regardless of whether that ambulance is in its service-delivery area or not.

“It’s always been a concern when we talk about it at budget time, but it’s the way the system works, you know?” McKenzie said.

“… The major specialty hospitals for heart and stuff like that are in Kitchener and London, and that’s why we get caught sometimes (in these other municipalities)… It does happen from time to time, but if you were the person in Waterloo or wherever and needed the ambulance, you would want the closest one to pick you up.”