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Hamilton paramedics say they are overworked and overstressed

Paramedics in Hamilton are stressed, overworked and dealing with unmanageable patient loads - to the point where the system is “unsustainable,” say local emergency service officials.

City faced with hiring 31 more paramedic staff and buying 5 more ambulances

Hamilton paramedics are overworked and missing breaks, which is "not sustainable," says a union official. City council is faced with adding 31 more paramedic staff and five more ambulances, which weighs heavily on an already burdened budget. (CBC)

Paramedics in Hamilton are stressed, overworked and dealing with unmanageable patient loads — to the point where the system is “not sustainable,” say local emergency service officials. And that's why the city needs to spend $1.2 million to boost the service.

Ambulance crews are skipping meals and missing much-needed breaks to deal with caseloads higher than similar cities, Chief Mike Sanderson of Hamilton Paramedic Services told councillors at a budget meeting on Tuesday.

“Our paramedics are probably the busiest paramedics, per call, across the province,” he said.

Sanderson described the stress as part of his request for $2.392,540 million in new ambulance funding during the 2015 budget process.

Unless there’s some level of reprieve in the course of a shift, when you’re pummeled and the pace is blistering, it has an effect on paramedics.- Mario Posteraro, president of OPSEU local 356

The service needs $1,267,230 from the city — the province funds half of the service — to hire 30 new paramedics and one new supervisor, Sanderson said. It would add five more ambulances.

Councillors balked at the cost in a budget that already proposes a tax increase of $105 on the average $284,600 home.

On March 24, Sanderson will bring back options to phase in the increases over two and three years. A three-year plan would see operating costs of $481,719 in 2015, $1,640,373 in 2016 and $1,785,032 in 2017, with capital costs of $762,534 in 2015 and $508,356 in 2016. Ambulances last about seven years.

The service can't wait three years for change, said Mario Posteraro. He’s president of OPSEU local 356, which represents Hamilton’s roughly 320 front-line paramedics.

“The need is now, not over the course of three years," he said, calling that timeline "unacceptable."

The more overworked paramedics are, Posteraro said, “the less likely they are to perform well. That manifests itself in less optimal clinical outcomes for our patients.”

When paramedical workers are overburdened, people facing emergencies are put at risk.- Coun. Aidan Johnson

The current workload is “not sustainable,” he said.

“Unless there’s some level of reprieve in the course of a shift, when you’re pummelled and the pace is blistering, it has an effect on paramedics,” he said.

“We have a fairly high incidence of injuries and illnesses. Meal breaks are missed, and even when we do have them, they’re interrupted.”

Hamilton is known as a high-stress place to work, he said, because it doesn’t have enough paramedics to meet the demand.

Coun. Aidan Johnson of Ward 1 supports the increase in paramedics.

“When paramedical workers are overburdened, people facing emergencies are put at risk,” he said.

Coun. Judi Partridge wants to see response times increased. The average response time in all of Hamilton was 11:42 in 2014. In Flamborough, where Partridge represents Ward 15, it was 18:35.

But Partridge says the greater concern continues to be how long it takes paramedics to leave hospitals after they offload patients.

“Until we address that, we’re going to continue to throw money at it and put Band Aids on it.”

Councillors are scheduled to pass the final budget on April 8.

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca@SamCraggsCBC

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