'Frustrating and demoralizing': Thunder Bay paramedics encountering increased assaults
Paramedics in Thunder Bay are increasingly being exposed to violence while on the job.
There have been 52 separate reported incidents of physical assaults directed at paramedics from September 2016 to October 2019, according to statistics provided by Superior North EMS.
Spitting is the most common type of encounter, representing 33 per cent of the incident reports, but paramedics have also been getting kicked, punched, struck and grabbed.
Superior North EMS deputy chief Andrew Dillon, who at least partially attributed the rise in violence to a steady increase in calls for overdoses and mental health and addiction issues, said it's a frustrating situation for paramedics and something the service's administration is trying to address.
"You are going there to render care and medical assistance to somebody in need and then to have that individual or potentially that individual's family member or bystander threaten you or actual consider physical harm to you makes the job difficult," Dillon said.
Last weekend, paramedics were assaulted in three separate incidents that happened in a matter of just a few hours.
Paramedic Murray Sweitzer, who also acts as a training officer, said first responders need to keep their heads on a swivel and constantly be aware of their surroundings.
"As for the violence - both physical and verbal - it is frustrating and demoralizing. I'm just here to make sure you see tomorrow," Sweitzer said.
The ambulance service has formalized an agreement with the Thunder Bay Police Service to share information about 911 calls, which better alert responding paramedics about the situation they're about to encounter.
"That means that based on the way a call would home come in and what we know about a particular situation, if it has the potential for violence, we give them the details of that to help them understand if they should wait for us to come and help them or whether they feel they can go in on their own," Insp. Derek West said.
Superior North also launched a new training program - Street SMART (Scene Management And Response Tactics) - last month. The initiative teaches situational awareness, escape and evading tactics, blocking techniques and how to approach scenes with personal safety in mind.
Sweitzer said many of the violent incidents happen in confined space when patients are being transported.
"A lot of this is in the back of the ambulance where we find ourselves," Sweitzer said. "With a lot of our violence, unfortunately, it's drugs, alcohol and sometimes dementia."
Dillon said starting in December, paramedics will be equipped with spit hoods to provide protection from spitting incidents. The mesh bags can be placed over a patient's head if they've spat or threatened to spit on a paramedic.