Ambulance dispatchers in 'hectic and unhealthy' office, MPP Fife says

Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife has written a letter to Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott about what she calls a "hectic and unhealthy" work environment at the Hamilton Central Ambulance Communications Centre, which also currently serves Waterloo region.

Staff can't take breaks, are denied vacation time Fife says in letter to Christine Elliott

Ambulance dispatchers for Waterloo region were moved to Cambridge in December due to staffing shortages, but that's led to a 'hectic and unhealthy' work environment for everyone, Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife says. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Cambridge ambulance dispatchers have a "hectic and unhealthy" work environment with managers telling them to skip breaks, says Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife.

In a letter to Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott dated April 3, Fife says she's concerned the province isn't doing enough to improve the operations for ambulance dispatchers. The letter also appeared in the regional council agenda on April 17.

"The front-line Cambridge staff in Hamilton have told me that the workplace is hectic and unhealthy," Fife wrote.

"Staff are unable to take breaks and are being denied vacation time. This has led to staff taking stress leave, and has caused a shortage of 20 Cambridge dispatchers."

She says dispatchers who continue to work, do so with "aging and subpar technology."

As well, Fife says, managers were told 12 new people would be hired by March 17 but that hasn't happened.

The Cambridge ambulance dispatch office closed in December due to a staffing shortage and operations were moved to Hamilton. Initially there were concerns Hamilton's dispatch office didn't have the technology to properly pinpoint 911 call locations.

[The province is] confident in the ongoing efforts to ensure the community's needs are being met.- Hayley Chazan , ministry spokesperson

There are investigations underway by the region and the Ministry of Health after reports an ambulance was sent to the wrong location in Waterloo region, resulting in a 16 minute delay.

That technology was updated in January.

Province 'confident' 

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo reached out to Elliott for comment on Fife's allegations, that staff are not getting breaks or vacation. Her spokesperson Hayley Chazan said in an email that the province is "monitoring the situation closely to ensure that Hamilton and Cambridge continue to have access to speedy emergency health services and are confident in the ongoing efforts to ensure the community's needs are being met."

Chazan said the Hamilton Central Ambulance Communications Centre (CACC) is working to hire more dispatchers and the Ministry of Health is working with the centre to "ensure that all shifts are adequately staffed and, in recognition of the stresses of the job, that vacation requests are approved."

She noted that since January, 93 per cent of vacation requests have been filled successfully.

"We remain committed to supporting staff and are holding weekly meetings with the Hamilton CACC to protect these vital services," Chazan wrote.

Warren "Smokey" Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) which represents the dispatchers, said not enough is being done to help the people working the high-stress job at the Hamilton centre.

When any politician [says] we're confident we'll meet the needs, that means they're not meeting the needs.- Warren 'Smokey' Thomas, OPSEU

"We're trying to get the ministry to do what they're supposed to do," he said.

When asked if he thought the ministry was meeting the needs of the community, he said no.

"When any politician [says] we're confident we'll meet the needs, that means they're not meeting the needs and probably they don't have a clue how to do it," he said.

"I don't have any faith at all in that kind of a statement," he added. "I've heard that hundreds of times in my career and that usually means they haven't done anything and they don't plan on doing anything."

OPSEU president Warren Smokey Thomas, seen in this file photo, says he's concerned about reports from workers that they can't take breaks or vacation at the Hamilton Central Ambulance Communications Centre because they're so short-staffed. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

'Not going to get up and leave'

Thomas says the employees were supposed to receive cross-training, so Cambridge dispatchers could work the Hamilton side of the centre and vice versa. That training is necessary because there's a lot to know about a community where you're dispatching ambulances, including landmarks and addresses, he said.

"They've not been able to do that cross-training because they're so short staffed," he said.

"People are not taking their breaks. Management says, 'Well you're entitled to a break.' But, I mean, they're not going to get up and leave the station unattended."

Thomas has also heard there's been a high rate of turnover and even people who have been hired quit after they started training. As well, he said there were 12 fixed-term employees hired.

"That's a contract. So by the time they train them up, the contracts will almost be over and they'll let them go. I don't know why they don't just hire full-time and train people up properly," he says.

He says the union is trying to secure a meeting with Elliott and ministry staff but so far haven't been able to set something up. Instead, the ministry has invited them to consultation meetings with other stakeholders on other issues.

"We'll just keep filing health and safety grievances," he said. "But at the end of the day, I guess our job is to try to put enough pressure on the government to fill these positions. And it won't get better overnight because it takes a few months for you to get trained up."

He says the Progressive Conservatives need to hire people, and the government promised to do so.

"They're promising to hire more staff. Well then, where are they?" he said.

The Region of Waterloo has asked to take over ambulance dispatch services.

When asked if the province is considering this request from the region, Chazan said, "The government is working alongside municipalities and health care partners as we modernize emergency health services in Ontario. These consultations are ongoing."


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