Social services, training needed to stop violence against first responders: unions

Following a brutal attack on firefighters on New Year's Eve, firefighter and paramedics unions are calling on the city to spend more on social supports and training to stop attacks against first responders. 

Head of United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg calls for more resources after 2 firefighters assaulted on duty

Alex Forrest of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg says the city needs to provide more resources and training to first responders and better social supports long-term. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Following a brutal attack on firefighters on New Year's Eve, firefighter and paramedic unions are calling on the city to spend more on social supports and training to stop attacks against first responders. 

A man armed with a knife attacked two on-duty firefighters as they went through an apartment building to reset a fire alarm on Tuesday night, police said Wednesday.

The amount of calls paramedics are responding to where violence is an issue is becoming "overwhelming," said Ryan Woiden, the president of Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union Local 911, which represents paramedics.

He said he can think of several examples in the last year where paramedics have had hatchets or other weapons pulled on them, to the point where they are now making a habit of patting patients down. 

"What happens when we can't be safe? Everything slows down, I can tell you that. And when you start to slow things down and you're talking about 911, it doesn't end well," he said. 

Ryan Woiden, the president of the paramedic union, Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union Local 911, says members are increasingly being put in dangerous situations. (CBC)

Woiden said he wants paramedics and firefighters to get better training to deal with these types of calls, but he also wants enhanced training for dispatchers to recognize potentially violent calls. He said he's been in situations where he was responding to a call at a known gang-affiliated house, or crime scene, where it turned out to be very dangerous. 

"Like what happens when we go to these gang houses … does the information flow from our dispatchers to our front-line people? How does it flow? How do we how do we learn from our mistakes?," he said. 

"I've had a gang of people come back to a scene after a stabbing, and we were forced to defend ourselves and it's crazy, what's out there really is crazy." 

Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said there are greater social issues that need to be addressed as well. 

"We have to invest more in mental health issues, support for people with addictions issues, the meth issue, the poverty."

Forrest also wants enhanced training to help emergency workers to recognize potentially violent calls, and a shift in approach that would see first responders wait for police support at some scenes.

"We have to basically change the way that we do business in Winnipeg. We have to be more cautious in going into the different locations. We have to be trained in how to go defensive," Forrest said.

"Our firefighters are going to have to stage [outside the scene] and not go into these situations until we have police support, and what this means is that we're going to need more resources."

Two firefighters and an accused man were sent to hospital for injuries sustained at an apartment building on Elgin Avenue. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Forrest said the most recent attack is part of a pattern of rising violence against first responders that's fuelled by mental health problems, addiction and other socioeconomic factors.

"This is a larger issue than the Winnipeg fire department," Forrest said. "This is a society issue that we have to address, and that's not going to come cheap."

'Horrifying' violence

In the Tuesday attack, one firefighter sustained defensive knife injuries to his hands and the other has face and hand injuries, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane said Wednesday.

A 19-year-old man faces charges of assault, assault with a weapon, uttering threats of causing death or bodily harm and resisting a peace officer. He remains in custody.

Const. Jay Murray of the Winnipeg Police Service said Thursday it's not been determined whether drugs or alcohol were factors in the incident.

Lane said Wednesday the service has already made changes and brought in training, adapted from the Winnipeg Police Service, to help members respond to violence.

"The frequency and the level of violence that we are beginning to see, that we are seeing, have seen over the past months and years, it's horrifying," Lane said.

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane says firefighters and paramedics are facing increased levels of violence in emergency response situations. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The service hired a consultant several weeks ago to review the circumstances surrounding the most violent incidents and how to better prepare for them, he said. The results are expected to come in early 2020.

"It's a real change in approach. It's a change in behaviour," he said.

"Really, it's a change in culture that we need to instill in our service, that absolutely our focus continues to be patient care and patient well-being, but we have to really think about responder safety as very much a very high priority, mixed in with that patient emphasis."

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg said all Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service members have a right to wait for the police to attend an incident if they don't feel safe. 

"If a member's safety is threatened once already engaging with a patient, they are trained to disengage and retreat to an area of safety until police attend," said Erin Madden via email. 

"However, there are often circumstances where this is difficult or impossible, such as in the back of a moving ambulance or in the confines of a residence or building."

With files from Aidan Geary, Riley Laychuk and Nelly Gonzalez


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