As the Toronto Paramedics union welcomes the recent announcement that $21 million in extra funding could be coming to the department’s budget, representatives say more needs to be done to help retain employees.
“We are in a state of crisis,” Peter Shirer, vice-chair of the Toronto Paramedic Services unit at CUPE Local 416, recently told CityNews when asked about the state of the service.
“(We) just surveyed the membership, and most of them say the morale was lower than it ever has been. Something like 70 per cent says that it’s either worse or as bad as it has ever been.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Eden Rosenberg, a spokesperson for the Toronto Paramedic Association — an advocacy organization on paramedicine in Toronto made up of paramedics.
“It’s been a rough three years,” he said while referencing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Right now, morale has taken a couple of hits. Everyone is pulling together to do the best they can.”
Shirer and Rosenberg said after being on the very frontline throughout the pandemic alongside a strained hospital and healthcare system often mean overtime, missed breaks and burnout for Toronto Paramedics crews.
“The cost we’re seeing with injuries and psychological injuries that are going on, by them extending themselves beyond sort of normal working conditions for a very extended period of time now,” Shirer said.
He also said a lack of expansion had compounded the problems over the past few years.
“We had a period of 10 years where we only hired to attrition, and that has, sort of, created a staffing debt that we’ve never repaid,” Shirer said.
Shirer and others said Toronto Paramedic Services can’t keep up with employees who quit or retire. He and Rosenberg pointed out the Region of Durham Paramedic Services, for example, as an organization that is hiring full-time paramedics and paying more.
“That becomes a further draw on our members who may live out that way or are seeking a change. You have a call volume there. All paramedic services in Ontario are getting crushed right now. Systemically it’s hectic for paramedics out there,” Shirer said.
“It’s a concern. Toronto is a great place to work, we have exceptional medics, we have exceptional programs other services don’t have,” Rosenberg added.
To further illustrate the point on staffing shortages, Shirer referenced the fact there were more than 1,000 instances in 2021 when there were zero ambulances available right away to respond to 911 calls.
“Your call will be deferred for what’s considered a high highest priority. We’re still making it to those highest-priority calls in some semblance of satisfactory times. Still, those times get larger and larger … it’s just sheer math that if you don’t have the units available to respond to the calls, then you’re not going to be able to respond to them,” he said.
“I’ve heard from paramedics assigned to [a] life-saving call and heard another life-saving call going down without a response unit at that second to respond to it.”
There have been issues at the Toronto Paramedic Services Dispatch Centre too. In 2022, we reported how in certain instances waited up to eight minutes to speak with a dispatcher after first calling 911 and speaking with a Toronto Police Service 911 call-taker.
A City of Toronto spokesperson told CityNews a class of 32 emergency medical dispatchers began training on Wednesday, and a second class is scheduled for late March.
“We acknowledge that the last three years have been an exceptionally difficult time for our staff, and we’re extremely proud as they have gone above and beyond,” a statement said.
Casey Barnett, the president of CUPE Local 79 — the union that represents the dispatchers, wasn’t available for an on-camera interview, but she called the budget announcement a good first step.
“Toronto’s paramedic dispatchers have struggled with severe workloads after years of chronic short staffing at the City’s medical dispatch centre. Residents across Toronto’s communities deserve to have their medical emergencies responded to promptly, and we are hopeful that the promise of long term and sustainable funding will allow paramedic dispatchers to accomplish that goal,” she said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory made the budget increase announcement on Friday. It’s one of two budget-related news conferences he held focusing on adding emergency services resources. During a previous announcement on boosting Toronto police resources, it included hiring 20 new 911 communications centre call-takers.
“As council members, we have no greater responsibility than making sure we are investing in community safety and emergency response in all aspects,” he said.
“We are constantly trying to find better and better ways to do things, but you cannot have a growing city and not have first responders of all kinds.”
There will be 66 new paramedic positions created as called for in a 2019 plan. The City of Toronto launched a five-year blueprint to bolster the ranks of Toronto Paramedic Services. Up to 184 paramedics will also be hired in 2023 to fill spots caused by retirements and resignations.
In 2023, Tory said $35 million would go toward emergency medical dispatch and better preliminary care, including life support instructions. He said $10 million would be spent on a community paramedicine program that will see paramedics go to frequent 911 callers and those with non-urgent matters to reduce 911 calls. Tory added $4.3 million will go toward needed medical supplies, medicines and vehicle maintenance.
Tory and the paramedics CityNews spoke with acknowledged more needs to be done. During his announcement on Friday, Tory reiterated previous calls for more hospital resources to accept patients brought in by paramedics. Those crews can sometimes wait for hours until patients are formally accepted by hospital staff.
Meanwhile, Shirer said that while the new money is needed, decision-makers must urgently ramp up efforts to keep the current Toronto Paramedics crews employed while accelerating hiring.
“The main thing is to make sure that that we are keeping the focus on increasing the staffing, increasing the support,” he said.
“It’s also changing the culture and ensuring that we’re supporting paramedics and those doing the frontline work in every aspect of their jobs. So they’re not being micromanaged and not feeling like they’re being overly taxed by management at any time.”
“We’re good value for money for sure. Our paramedics do an incredible job. They work 12-hour shifts without a break. They definitely save lives regularly.”