Fire chief offers counselling to 350 paramedics whose jobs could be shipped over to the province — or lost

Winnipeg's fire-paramedic chief has offered counselling to 350 employees who may be upset by a forthcoming report explaining how their paramedic jobs could be handed over to the province — and potentially lost.

'These discussions may cause employees to feel anxious,' John Lane warns before release of ambulance report

It would take at least 2 years for Winnipeg to hand ambulance services over to the province, according to a draft version of a report by fire-paramedic chief John Lane. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Winnipeg's fire-paramedic chief has offered counselling to 350 employees who may be upset by a forthcoming report explaining how their paramedic jobs could be handed over to the province — and potentially lost.

On Thursday, Chief John Lane warned all members of the Winnipeg Fire-Paramedic Service that the city is about to publish a report that lays out the steps the City of Winnipeg would need to take in order to upload ambulance services to the province.

A draft of the report obtained by CBC News suggests the transition would be a complex task that would take at least two years to pull off and jeopardize the effectiveness of emergency communications — but could eventually save the city $3 million a year.

Council finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James-Brooklands-Weston) asked Lane to produce the report in December, after Mayor Brian Bowman expressed annoyance with the province for freezing core funding for ambulance services and also complained the Pallister government was slow to compensate the city for services it delivers.

The city contends the province has underpaid it by $2 million for ambulance services it was supposed to fund in 2017. That shortfall is expected to rise to $4.6 million this year, the report states.

In an internal memo, Lane told his staff he was required by council to produce the report and warned it could distress paramedics and their families.

"We understand these discussions may cause employees to feel anxious about aspects of their work. Staff and family members requiring support or assistance can access our employee and family assistance program," Lane wrote in the memo, describing the assistance as "a free, confidential, voluntary, professional counselling service available to employees and immediate family members who live with them." 

The chief said publication of the report on Thursday "will generate further discussion and uncertainty among staff within and beyond the workplace" and urged firefighters and paramedics to be respectful with each other.

"Most importantly, we must all remain focused on ensuring our patients and other clients continue to receive the utmost in care and compassion throughout their experiences with our service," he wrote.​

A draft of the report, authored by Lane, suggests the city could save $3 million a year by transferring ambulance services to the province. 

For context, the city expects to spend a total of $68 million on ambulance services this year.

The report also suggests it would take at least two years to upload paramedic services to the province and the task would not be easy.

"The integrated model is intricate and complex," Lane wrote in the draft report. "Thorough characterization of the transition process would require a significant amount of time and expertise and it is envisioned the process would take, at minimum, 24 months to complete."
Winnipeg Fire-Paramedic Service Chief John Lane issued a memo to his staff prior to release of a report on the future of the service. (CBC)

In order to upload ambulance services to the province, the city would have to provide notice to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, hire a transition consultant, determine how much the transition would cost and figure out how much all of the city's ambulance-service assets — both vehicles and equipment — are worth, the report states.

Separating ambulance service from firefighting would also "jeopardize the effectiveness" of the city's emergency dispatch and communications system, the report states.

Lane also states while no firefighters would lose their jobs as a result of uploading, the future of 350 paramedics is less certain.

"The employment of these individuals by [shared health] will depend upon their service delivery model," Lane wrote, adding it would "require extensive legal and labour-relations consultations" to hand over those jobs.

The City of Winnipeg declined to comment on either Lane's memo or his draft report. City spokesperson Michelle Finley said the city does not comment on internal memos and will not discuss the report until it's made public.

Lane said in his memo the report will be posted on Thursday and then discussed by council's executive policy committee on April 11.

On Thursday morning, the EPC agenda did not include the report. Mayor Brian Bowman's office said the chief was mistaken about the timing. 

Lane said later Thursday he erred on the date. He refused to comment on his draft report, but said his offer of counselling services was not unusual.

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky called the ambulance-funding dispute a distraction. (CBC)

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents city paramedics, called both the memo and the report concerning.

"This funding dispute is a distraction that needs to be sorted out between the province and city," MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said in a statement.

"We are committed to working to find ways within the current model that [put] patient care and safety first."

On Friday, both Coun. Gillingham and the mayor declined to comment on the draft report as well as the chief's memo offering counselling services.

"The chief is, it's his responsibility to oversee his staff and employees. And so if the chief deems it, that necessary, to provide those services, that's on the chief. It may be premature, in my view," Gillingham  said.

The mayor said Lane briefed him on "elements" of his report, but urged the public to wait for the final version.

Winnipeg's fire-paramedic chief has offered counselling to 350 employees who may be upset by a forthcoming report explaining how their paramedic jobs could be handed over to the province — and potentially lost. 2:11

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

- With files from Caroline Barghout