An ambulance had to be pulled from a ditch along a rural Manitoba highway this morning after two paramedics fell asleep and rolled the vehicle, in a case that's being blamed on extreme fatigue.
The rollover happened shortly before 7 a.m. CT on Highway 16 east of Neepawa, Man., as the emergency medical technicians were driving back to their base in Swan River, Man., after transferring a patient to Winnipeg.
Police say both paramedics were not hurt, and they weren't transporting any patients at the time, but the ambulance was damaged. No other vehicles were involved.
"They told me that it was a fatigue issue. They had been driving back and were very tired and fell asleep and rolled the ambulance," Wayne Chacun, a paramedic based in Virden, Man., and a representative with the Manitoba Government Employees Union's paramedic unit, told CBC News on Tuesday.
"I know that they did not get any sleep yesterday during the day, prior to starting their shift last night, because the pager went off seven different times during the day," he added. "They went close to 24 hours without sleep."
Chacun said paramedic fatigue is a major problem in rural areas.
The MGEU has been calling on the provincial government to cap the number of consecutive hours a paramedic can work.
"People have been working for 43 out of 48 hours and then getting reprimanded by their employer when they need to go off to sleep," Chacun said.
"I've had other paramedics tell me about driving and hallucinating because they're so tired, and thinking they see things on the road."
Provincial government officials say a full investigation of the rollover is underway and they are making paramedic fatigue a top priority.
Gerry Delorme, Manitoba Health's acting director of emergency preparedness and response, said the province will do more to listen to paramedics' concerns.
"It's a very reasonable thing that if a medic tells me something is unsafe — whether they're too tired, whether the road's too dangerous, or the equipment isn't safe — that I respond to it and I ask my managers to respond to it as well," he said.
Delorme said the province is looking at introducing caps on shift lengths and restructuring where paramedics are stationed.
In the meantime, he said workload issues should not force paramedics to make unsafe choices.
"If you're too tired, pull over, stop, get a hotel room," he said.
"I'd have been more than happy to pay a hotel bill for medics stopping when they're too tired."