Lack of ambulances left 92-year-old woman waiting for help, Toronto paramedics’ union says

A picture of two ambulances, with a paramedic looking into the opened car door of one.

The union representing Toronto’s paramedics says it issued the second code red alert this month, signaling there were no transport vehicles available in the city. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC)

For the second time this month, the Toronto Paramedic Union issued a code red alert — indicating there were no transport ambulances available in the city.

Mike Merriman, the paramedic services unit chair for Toronto Civic Employees Union Local 416, says the alert was triggered Monday evening, when a 92-year-old woman fell unconscious. The call was considered high-acuity and life-threatening, he said.

He says Toronto Paramedic Services sent a lone medic in a SUV, who was stationed almost half an hour away from her. By the time the medic arrived and requested transport help, the service had no units to send, prompting them to request a vehicle from Peel Region instead — all things that cost the patient more time away from hospital, Merriman said.

“The problem is, this is not going away any time soon,” said Merriman. The union represents about 1,400 paramedics in Toronto.

“The only answer is you have to have more ambulances out there to meet the demand.”

The union has been raising the alarm about a lack of paramedic resources for years, issuing almost 2,500 code red alerts in 2022 and 1,139 the year before. And with call volumes projected to grow by three to five per cent each year, the union says officials need to address chronic underfunding and understaffing, and stop passing the buck for things to get better.

“For Mayor Chow, politicians or our service to keep playing this blame game does nothing to solve the problem.”

Chow wants better health care, MOH can ‘match’ funds

During a news conference Tuesday, Mayor Olivia Chow said many ambulances, along with firetrucks and police vehicles, are stuck at hospital emergency wards “waiting to offload” patients.

That was something flagged in the paramedic service’s budget report this year, which called in-hospital wait times “the most significant contributor to low ambulance availability.” The report notes paramedics spent approximately 800 hours in hospitals each day in 2022, compared to 650 hours in 2019.

WATCH | Toronto Paramedic Union spokesperson on why paramedics are leaving the city:

The union representing Toronto paramedics is demanding city officials address what it calls chronic underfunding and understaffing of paramedic services. This comes after the Toronto Paramedic Union issued a second code red alert in one month, indicating there were no ambulances available in the city to respond to 911 calls.

While Chow says she understands the anxiety residents may have, she said the problem is a symptom of a larger, long-standing “cycle” that flows from the province’s overall health care system.

“It is not something that the City of Toronto can do alone,” said Chow. “I’ve spoken to the chief paramedics and we are pushing to get the health care system to work better.”

In an email response to CBC Toronto, Ministry of Health spokesperson Hannah Jensen said through the 2023 budget, the Ontario government has invested $51 million over three years into its Dedicated Offload Nursing Program to help paramedics get “back into communities faster,” with $9 million to Toronto Paramedic Services.

Jensen also highlighted the Land Ambulance Service Grant, which funds ambulance services in a 50/50 split with municipalities. The province increased the grant by five per cent this year, with $138 million going to Toronto’s paramedics service.

The city’s paramedic service’s operating budget for 2023 sits at just over $315 million.

“Our government’s four-part strategy to tackle ambulance offload time issues is focused on is improving patient flow in hospital, reducing ambulance offload time, and avoiding unnecessary trips to emergency departments,” wrote Jensen.

“Should any paramedic service want to increase their budget, the province will be there to match that request.”

The union has started a new campaign to get residents of Toronto to share their experiences calling and waiting for an ambulance. Merriman hopes to deliver these stories to city and provincial figures to convince them to take the issue more seriously.

“They call themselves a world class city, but when it comes to paramedic services, it’s far from it,” said Merriman.