Winnipeg firefighters responding to increasingly violent calls, union says

The Winnipeg firefighters union claims a major change in the nature of calls meant for police assistance or investigation puts its members in more risky, dangerous situations over the last year.

United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg says members are increasingly responding to calls that should involve police

Alex Forrest, head of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg union, wrote in a letter to members that firefighters should consider their own safety before attending to increasingly high-risk calls he says are unrelated to medical, fire and rescue emergencies. (Chris Glover/CBC)

The Winnipeg firefighters union says its members are being sent to calls that require a police response — and that's put its members in an increasing number of dangerous situations over the last year.

The head of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg said in a notice to members posted to its website Monday that police "must stop" offloading potentially risky non-medical, non-fire and non-rescue calls to its emergency responders.

Union president Alex Forrest said in an interview Tuesday that firefighters are typically first on the scene when medical intervention is required. "What's different now is that we're being sent to calls that are not fire or medical in nature, but are police calls."

The union representative said he had 35 incident reports on his desk involving firefighters who have been punched, kicked or bitten, or where weapons such as guns, knives and clubs were involved.

"Winnipeg has become very violent in nature. The police services are being stretched thin and what's happening is that police are using us as an extension of the police force," Forrest said.

Dealing with police matters almost daily

In the notice to members, Forrest did not provide statistics or specific examples of the violence the union says its members are experiencing, but says he will document those concerns to present at the next labour management meeting.

When interviewed by CBC News, he said he has received reports almost daily of firefighters being put in "untenable situations" such as car thefts, break-ins, unruly people and other disturbances that he says should be considered police matters.

"It's such a dangerous situation because firefighters are not trained, we do not have the equipment, nor is it our job to be able to deal with or handle these situations."

Forrest is advising his members not to engage in those cases.

"We believe that if this continues that it will put firefighters in harm's way, that it will result in a serious injury or worse, death of a firefighter."

A spokesperson for the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union — which represents nearly 350 ambulance-based paramedics in the city who provide medical care in crisis situations such as drug overdoses and injuries due to violence — echoed Forrest's concerns.

"[Paramedics] rely on police protection to provide timely medical care in a safe way," said Jean-Guy Bourgeois, the union's internal operations director.

"So right now, with police resources being strained to their limit, more and more ambulance paramedics are finding themselves entering situations when police are not able to attend."

He suggested unarmed paramedics are also finding themselves in potentially dangerous situations involving weapons, recent acts of violence and intoxication — without police presence.

Weekend check for man carrying club

Forrest referred to an incident on the weekend where firefighters were dispatched to attend to a non-medical emergency to check in on a report of a man carrying a club down Main Street. The emergency responders asked what they were supposed to do in the situation but received no directive from dispatch, Forrest said.

They never found the man, but Forrest said that's an example of a police call firefighters never should've been sent on.

Forrest alleges firefighting resources are being used inappropriately, and says the firefighters union has met with police, fire and dispatch administrations six or seven times since the fall to change protocols — but not enough is being done.

An element of danger has always been present but undoubtedly the nature of the emergency environment, in terms of frequency and in terms of severity of that violence, has been increasing.- Fire Paramedic Chief John Lane

Now the union is encouraging its members to make their own safety a priority to avoid what it calls "unnecessary risk" on the job.

"If you believe that the incident is violent in any way, has a weapon, a gun or a knife, or is a criminal act in progress, we are telling our members not to engage" and await confirmation from police that the scene is safe and secure before entering, Forrest said in the notice to members.

The UFFW president said he understands the Winnipeg police force is "stretched thin" and said he takes issue with its leadership, not the work being done on the front lines.

Fire chief responds

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane spoke at a news conference Tuesday afternoon to address the union's statements and safety concerns. Lane did not deny that fire and paramedics are dealing with a higher rate of more serious calls.

"We take that extremely seriously," the fire chief of ensuring first responders are safe when they find themselves in increasingly unpredictable situations.

"That's why it's called emergency. An element of danger has always been present but undoubtedly the nature of the emergency environment, in terms of frequency and in terms of severity of that violence, has been increasing."

However, Lane argued that Forrest's allegation that police calls are being diverted to fire and paramedic services is unfounded.

"We have no evidence of that," Lane said, adding that occasionally calls come through to front-line crews that do not involve medical or fire components.

Winnipeg fire Chief John Lane, pictured earlier in July, said the number of violent incidents has gone up in the past few years. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Given the rising number of 911 calls, Lane said there's a higher chance that firefighters and paramedics will respond to more unrelated calls.

"Winnipeg is seeing the effects of methamphetamine probably more than any other major city in Canada, and we are working as partners to do our very best to ensure the safety of our responders," Lane said.

He also said the memo to United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg members contains nothing more than what existing protocols empower service providers to do.

Responders are already allowed to make judgment calls and take appropriate measures — including disengaging — to ensure their own safety at any point in time during an emergency response.

"That's why we've empowered those providers to make those judgment calls in the field."

With regards to dispatch protocols, Lane said the fire department co-ordinates with police to ensure staff are dealing with appropriate calls.

Sometimes information provided to dispatch teams by 911 callers is not entirely accurate, he said, which adds a layer of difficulty.

Dispatch notes are shared across service providers, said Lane, although that process was recently modified to ensure patients' privacy.

Additionally, first responders have emergency activation buttons on their radios that crew members can use if issues emerge. Lane said police response to those calls has been immediate and "substantial."