Winnipeg police policy change may put firefighters and paramedics at risk of violence, leaked report finds

After analyzing hundreds of workplace injury reports filed by Winnipeg firefighters and paramedics, a consultant report has concluded those workers are sometimes not getting enough information when they are dispatched to a call that may pose a higher risk of violence.

Report found reduced information shared by 911 call takers could lead to higher risk for responders

While Winnipeg paramedics and firefighters filed 47 workplace injury reports from work-related violence in 2017, the number of reports increased to 121 in 2019. (Travis Golby/CBC)

After analyzing hundreds of workplace injury reports filed by Winnipeg firefighters and paramedics, a consultant's report has concluded those workers are sometimes not getting enough information when they are dispatched to a call that may pose a higher risk of violence.

The report says a policy change by Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) means "they no longer provide any commentary and descriptive information when referring an incident to the WFPS [Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service]."

"This shift in direction means that paramedic and fire and rescue units do not have access to any critical information that may have been known by the WPS related to the potential violence of a situation," says the report by consultant MNP LLP, formerly known as Meyers Norris Penny.

Examples cited include being dispatched to homes that are known to police as being frequently involved in drug and gang-related violence, or homes where police recently responded to a domestic violence call.

"It's worrisome," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents about 300 Winnipeg paramedics. 

"When you go to a call, you want to make sure that you're [as] fully informed as possible," she told CBC News. "There needs to be a clear line of communication on being able to share what is happening on those calls."  

The amount of on-the-job violence reported by paramedics and firefighters comes as no surprise to MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky, who represents paramedics. (John Einarson/CBC)

The report also points out paramedics and firefighters are restricted to communicating by radio with their communications centre, and those communications are limited to the essential in order to minimize extraneous radio traffic.

That limits their ability to assess risk and determine the proper response, the report found.

Process changed due to privacy legislation

CBC News obtained a copy of the MNP report, which the city has not yet publicly released but has shared with employee groups.

WFPS says historically when police received a 911 call that needed resources from the fire-paramedic service, the police 911 call takers "would transfer the call and all notes related to the call to the WFPS 911 call taker," spokesperson Erin Madden said in an email to CBC News.

"Due to privacy legislation, this process changed and WFPS now only receives select information," she said. 

"On a small number of occasions, information related to risk or safety may not be known at the time when the information is sent over. WFPS is actively working with WPS to ensure better information sharing to reduce the risk of this occurring," Madden said.

MNP was hired by the City of Winnipeg in 2019 to look at first-responder safety, and found a marked increase in on-the-job violence against paramedics and firefighters.

While staff at the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service filed 47 workplace injury reports from work-related violence in 2017, the number of reports increased to 121 in 2019.

A total of 705 such reports have been filed since 2004 by staff experiencing a physical assault, assault with a weapon, threats or symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the report says. 

It also says anecdotal evidence suggests not every incident is reported, meaning the actual number of incidents could be anywhere from two to 10 times the number reported.

'I'm not surprised': Gawronsky

The type of hazard most frequently reported was physical assault, accounting for 174 out of the 256 workplace injury reports filed between 2017 and 2019. Broken down by day of the week, reports of assaults were most likely to happen on Friday, while threats were most common on Sunday. 

When it comes to time of day, the report says the greatest number of hazards are reported on medical calls that happen between 8 a.m and 9 a.m.

One of the factors associated with the increased risk of violence is contact with people under the influence of substances such as alcohol, opioids and methamphetamine. The report says first responders are also threatened by individuals sleeping in public areas who react unpredictably when woken up by paramedics and firefighters.

"I'm not surprised," Gawronsky said in response to the amount of violence.

"How many stories from paramedics do we need to hear about the stress on the job, the total exhaustion they're going through, the mental and emotional anguish they go through before something is going to be done?"

The United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg is currently in contract negotiations with the city and declined to comment on the MNP report.

MNP interviewed 36 employees in the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, ranging from front-line workers, to health and safety representatives, to managers.

The consultant recommended a new training program be developed to help workers deal with on-the-job violence.

The findings echo those in a University of Manitoba research project published this year by a team including former Winnipeg paramedic Jennifer Setlack. It found high levels of violence against paramedics and firefighters, resulting in depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Setlack says she has not seen the MNP report, but says she believes the statistics for on-the-job violence are from her own research.

The MNP report found more than "80 per cent of WFPS members surveyed had experienced some form of violence while on duty in the month prior to completing the survey."

71% of paramedics say they've been physically threatened

Asked whether they'd been hit, kicked, grabbed or pushed, 73 per cent of paramedics surveyed said yes, as did 49 per cent of firefighters.

On the question of whether someone yelled or screamed at them, 96 per cent of paramedics and 82 per cent of firefighters indicated that had happened.

More than half of paramedics — 53 per cent — and 27 per cent of firefighters said they'd had objects thrown at them. Workers in both job categories said they'd been threatened with physical violence, including 71 per cent of paramedics surveyed and 55 per cent of firefighters.

The survey also found on-the-job violence results in mental health injuries to those workers, such as 19 per cent of paramedics and 10 percent of firefighters in the survey reporting PTSD. 

Exhaustion-related burnout was reported by 86 per cent of paramedics and 58 per cent of firefighters. 

The study found on-the-job violence and mental health problems were reported by a higher proportion of paramedics than firefighters.

Examples of factors contributing to violent incidents included things like paramedics being alone in the back of an ambulance with a patient, lack of training on de-escalation and lack of training on how to search patients.

Recommendations from report

MNP recommends the fire-paramedic service develop a mental health program staffed with specialists, including a psychologist, who will understand the specific needs of WFPS employees.

The WFPS spokesperson said that will be done "as the budgetary process allows".

"At present, we do not have a timeline on this," said spokesperson Erin Madden. "WFPS is committed to ultimately implementing all recommendations from the report."

The Winnipeg police service has had a psychologist on staff since 1991.

The city set up an advisory group with the unions representing fire-paramedic staff which has begun meeting to map out priorities and timelines for implementing MNP's recommendations, Madden said.

"The group agreed the top priority was additional training for all frontline members. The development of a training program is currently underway and is expected to be rolled out in January 2021," she said.

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With files from Caroline Barghout


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