With a controversial plan to curb Winnipeg firefighters' overtime costs sent back to the drawing board, some city paramedics and others have ideas on how to bring costs down.

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and the union representing firefighters will meet next week to discuss possible solutions to the ballooning overtime costs.

The department is projected to spend $5.6 million on overtime for firefighters this year, an 86 per cent increase over last year, according to officials.

A proposal put forward earlier this week by acting fire Chief Bill Clark — to reduce staff at two fire halls — was harshly criticized by the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, which said reducing firefighting staff would put people's safety at risk.

No changes will be made until the union meets with the fire chief, says Coun. Scott Fielding, who chairs the city's protection committee.

"I think that the plan going forward won't be exactly what he put forward," Fielding said Thursday.

"I don't think they met right off the bat and so it kind of went live publicly and then, you know, there's a backlash."

Meanwhile, the union representing Winnipeg paramedics suggests there may be a better way to reduce overtime costs.

Firefighters handling medical calls

Chris Broughton, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union Local 911, said 75 per cent of calls being handled by firefighters are for medical issues, not fires.

The city has trained more than 160 firefighters to handle medical emergencies, and Broughton said that can result in extra people at a call.

About 96 per cent of medical calls are not life-threatening, he added.

"Quite often we see those situations where we see an extra two, four, six personnel at a medical call," he said.

"Maybe the best approach is not sending firefighters, not sending ambulances, but sending a community paramedic to deal with those health-care needs."

Broughton said he hopes a pilot program involving community paramedics can save money on calls, as well as reduce the number of trips to emergency departments.

Fielding said while he's keeping an open mind about any proposed changes, he noted that Winnipeg leads the country in emergency response times in part because of firefighters trained to attend to medical calls.

"Right now I don't think that's on the table because we have spent so much money into it and, quite frankly, we're getting some good results in terms of response time," he said.

John Saunders, a Toronto lawyer who negotiates for fire departments across Canada, says officials should look at moving away from "flat staffing."

"Right now what you see is fire departments have the same number of people on staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No other emergency service has that," he said.

Saunders said fire crews are not staffed for peak times when there are the highest numbers of calls.

Meanwhile, paramedic crews are staffed when the need is greatest, and officials know when during the day and week it's busiest.

Other ideas being explored include introducing term positions to cover long-term absentees and part-time staffing.

As well, Fielding said officials will to other jurisdictions for ideas.