Paramedics 'running from call to call' as demand grows, says chief

Region of Waterloo paramedics have become increasingly busy dealing with a number of calls for help that have started to exceed even pre-pandemic levels.

Ambulance responses up 10 per cent last year compared to 2020

Paramedics are dealing with a growing number of calls, due in part to the region's growing and aging population, says Chief Steve Van Valkenburg. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Region of Waterloo paramedics have become increasingly busy dealing with a number of calls for help that have started to exceed even pre-pandemic levels. 

According to a regional staff report, there were 63,615 paramedic vehicle responses in 2021. That's up 10 per cent compared to 2020 and seven per cent compared to 2019. 

Paramedics are also spending more time on the road responding to calls than in years past. The report showed the service had a "unit utilization" rate of 42 per cent in 2021 — an increase from 39 per cent in 2020. 

"Any time you're having utilizations over 40 per cent, that becomes problematic," said paramedic services Chief Steve Van Valkenburg. 

"It means the staff are increasingly busy … running from call to call." 

Stephen Van Valkenburg is Chief of Region of Waterloo Paramedic Services. (Submitted by Stephen Van Valkenburg)

The uptick in demand is likely driven in part by the region's growing — and aging — population, Van Valkenburg said.

The Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo census metropolitan area grew from 523,894 people in 2016 to 575,847 people in 2021, according to the latest Statistics Canada numbers. 

In the same period, the population of people aged 85 and older grew from 10,130 to 11,555.

Offload delays returning

As paramedics hustle to keep up with the growing number of calls, they're also facing hold-ups when they go to drop patients off.

The report shows offload delays are once again on the rise in Waterloo region. That's when a hospital doesn't have capacity to take in a patient, so paramedics must wait with them until a space frees up.

These delays have been an ongoing problem for at least 15 years, though there was a brief dip during the pandemic, Van Valkenburg said. 

"It's this cyclical flow issue within the hospital and it purely rests at the Ministry of Health's feet," he said.

A total of 249 ambulance days were lost to offload delays in 2021. That's up from 134 days lost in 2020, though that year was unusually low due to the pandemic, the report said.

Ambulances still responding quickly

Waterloo region isn't alone in dealing with offload delays, said Van Valkenburg. The Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs is working on a paper about the issue, which it will bring to the province. 

Despite the various pressures, Van Valkenburg noted paramedics are still responding to patients quickly. The average response time for a "code four" call — where a patient's life or limb may be at risk — was 8 minutes and 58 seconds. That's 13 seconds faster than it was in 2020.

"We're getting to the sickest people the quickest we can," he said. "That's the good news story.

"The bad news story is our system is stressed and strained right now." 


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