Winnipeg firefighters have been understaffed on three recent shifts, a problem their union says is putting patient care at risk.
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service confirmed its crews were six short members on June 26, when the service could not find enough personnel to operate a fire truck and squad unit. This left these units out of service for 10 hours.
Similar problems occurred the previous weekend. On Saturday June 18, seven shifts could not be filled, while the department ran out of three firefighters on June 19.
The WFPS said the shortage was caused by vacation, sick leave and other leaves that it could not find enough staff to cover overtime.
The head of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg union said the downsizing threatened to lengthen response times and compromise patient safety.
“We’re starting to take the machines out of service, so it’s a bit of Russian roulette, as far as I’m concerned,” union president Tom Bilous said.
Bilous said many firefighters are willing to work overtime, but the demand for them to do so has increased in recent months, leading more of them to start turning down shifts.
“They’re getting burned out, getting tired… there’s no doubt they’re getting burned out and it’s unsustainable, that level of overtime,” he said. “That rest and recovery period is being compromised and it’s been going on for months. We’re starting to see the effects.
The union leader urged the WFPS to hire 50 more firefighters.
WFPS chief Christian Schmidt said the service was concerned about the staffing shortage, which began in late December, and was doing everything possible to ease it.
“There (are) no negative results… but obviously it’s not ideal. We have a supplement that we have been working with for many years and it has proven to be effective…and we need to maintain it,” he said.
The service said COVID-19-related isolation and illness led to a sharp increase in sick days and overtime earlier this year. Mental health issues and burnout have fueled absences, which the service links to pandemic pressure and high demand for services.
Schmidt said five firefighters were recently hired and four primary care paramedic firefighters will begin work in July, adding to the 73 firefighters hired last year.
He noted that COVID-19 is forcing ever more staff to be absent, as relief workers showing symptoms of the virus must stay home to avoid causing an outbreak within WFPS or infecting vulnerable patients.
“We simply cannot be in a situation where we have someone in the workforce who is COVID positive potentially spreading this disease to other members of the workforce or to patients whose they care,” he said.
The chief said the service has taken several steps that he hopes will help stabilize staffing levels. These include: researching retirement trends and using the data to proactively hire replacements; the addition of two health resource specialists to help furloughed staff get medical care to return to work safely as soon as possible; and the creation of a behavioral health unit to help employees address mental health issues.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves telling the stories of this city, especially when it comes to politics. Joyanne became a reporter at City Hall for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
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