Montreal emergency services short-staffed as COVID-19 takes its toll

Montreal ambulance, fire and police services are all feeling the pressure of the pandemic, which is forcing hundreds of first responders to stay home if they catch the coronavirus.

Hundreds of first responders in isolation, causing service delays

Benoît Garneau, chief of services with Urgences-santé, said there are about 15 fewer ambulances on the road during the day shift. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Montreal ambulance, fire and police services are all feeling the pressure of the pandemic, which is forcing hundreds of first responders to stay home if they catch the coronavirus.

For example, Urgences-Santé — the ambulance service for Montreal and Laval — is reporting about 100 paramedics are in isolation as of Monday. That's out of about 950.

Benoît Garneau, chief of services, said that works out to about 15 fewer ambulances on the road for the day shift.

Even with personal protective equipment, he said more staff than ever are testing positive for COVID-19 and, given the circumstances, low-priority calls are taking longer to get to and treat.

"We're a bit short-staffed right now," said Kevin Morson, a union representative with the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS-CSN).

Ambulances are in high demand and that is only adding to delays, particularly for patients seeking transfers between facilities, he said. 

Morson said paramedics are scarfing down their lunch while on the go, working long hours and responding to stressful calls under stressful conditions, dressed up in protective gear.

A recent survey revealed that about half of staff are looking for another job because they don't see themselves working under such conditions all the way to retirement, said Morson.

Firefighters see steep increase in infections

Chris Ross, head of the Association des pompiers de Montréal, said of the approximately 2,400 firefighters in the city, roughly 335 members tested positive for COVID-19, but the large majority of those were in the last three weeks.

"We can deal with a certain amount of absences over a long period of time, but dealing with an absence of 200 of our members over the last couple of weeks specifically compounded with Christmas and New Year's has been extremely taxing on our forces," Ross said.

Omicron is so virulent that it is spreading much faster among staff who can't simply rely on a basic surgical mask to protect themselves anymore when they are working in close quarters, Ross said.

Urgences-santé services in Montreal and Laval are currently slower for low-priority calls and hospital transfers, officials say. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

He said firefighters are often crammed together in trucks, for example, and these types of situations are contributing to the rapid transmission of COVID-19.

As of Dec. 18, overtime hours have become mandatory, forcing staff to work 48-hour shifts — up to 52 hours in some cases, as they wait for a replacement to be available.

"Right up until recently, we have had no problem maintaining services to the population," said Ross, but there have been some periods where staffing was thin.

The average citizen may not notice a delay in response time, but it takes longer for all the needed fire trucks and firefighters to get to the scene because trucks are being called in from farther away, Ross explained.

Montreal working to maintain services

The Montreal police service (SPVM) has not been publicly sharing data on staff absenteeism.

However, Radio-Canada learned earlier this month that between 550 and 650 employees were absent from work and that 90 per cent of them are uniformed officers. A source within the SPVM told Radio-Canada that the police service has had to reorganize to separate officers more and limit outbreaks.

A Montreal spokesperson would not say how many police officers and firefighters are absent from work due to COVID-19. Hugo Bourgoin said the city is not disclosing that number for "public safety reasons."

Bourgoin said "the safety of our employees is a priority" and the city has been following public health recommendations.

"There are currently some cases of COVID-19 among employees," Bourgoin said.

"All mitigation measures are in place to ensure the presence of personnel to maintain the operations of our emergency services and to ensure that the level of service is not affected."

with files from Rowan Kennedy


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