RCMP detachments across the country brace for pandemic-driven staff shortages

With the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeping the country and putting emergency services under intense pressure, the RCMP says it has contingency plans in place to cope with pandemic-related staff shortages.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant is putting emergency services under heavy pressure

The Omicron variant is putting new pressure on emergency services, including police. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

With the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeping the country and putting emergency services under intense pressure, the RCMP says it has contingency plans in place to cope with pandemic-related staff shortages.

A spokesperson for the RCMP's E division, which serves British Columbia, said it's preparing for a surge in the number of officers calling in sick.

Citing operational reasons, Sgt. Chris Manseau wouldn't say how many officers and civilians in the RCMP are down with COVID-19 now. He said most cases among RCMP officers to date have been related to community or personal contacts, not policing duties or interactions with the public.

"We anticipate that there could be a rise in employees either requiring sick leave or requiring time off due to possible symptoms or exposures," he said.

"We have contingency plans in place and individual units or detachments will enact them based on essential service requirements. Units and programs have been asked to review their business continuity plans to ensure process and procedures are in place to maintain essential service levels where human resources are significantly reduced."

Those plans include leaning on other detachments and deploying reservists, if necessary, to make sure shifts are covered.

"Fortunately, we have members in many specialty sections that can be relied upon should frontline policing need supplementing temporarily," said Manseau.

The RCMP's Surrey, B.C., detachment reports that it has seen a "big jump" in pandemic-related illness. The detachment said that as of Thursday, 42 of its officers were off work due to COVID-19 because they had tested positive or were awaiting test results.

New Brunswick's RCMP division said it has similar plans to make sure patrols are kept up.

In Alberta, Cpl. Deanna Fontaine said that while multiple Mounties have been in isolation, their numbers remain low. 

"Alberta RCMP can confirm that our policing operations have not been affected by the new variant and we have not had to redeploy policing resources to maintain those operations," she said.

"As public safety is our top priority, in the event that we experience a higher than normal level of absenteeism due to illness, the Alberta RCMP have contingency plans in place to ensure there are no disruptions to our operations."

Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan are also reporting spikes in the number of Mounties off the job due to COVID-19.

"We can confirm that officers in a number of detachments across Manitoba have tested positive or have symptoms of COVID-19 and are in isolation," said Tara Seel, spokesperson for the RCMP in that province.

Winnipeg police chief declares state of emergency

Other police forces are taking more drastic steps. The chief of the Winnipeg Police Service announced this week that he was declaring a "state of emergency" because it faces "some real challenges ahead."

"The current COVID-19 situation has significantly impacted our staffing resources," Chief Danny Smyth said in a media statement.

Brian Sauvé is president of the National Police Federation, the RCMP's union. He said one of the RCMP's strengths is its detachment system — if one detachment is hit hard by illness, officers from other detachments can be deployed to fill the gap.

To keep it that way, Sauvé is pushing the federal government to spend millions of dollars on expanding recruitment at the force's training depot.

"This situation that many organizations are experiencing with increased absences due to Omicron and seasonal flu and colds underscores the importance of ensuring the RCMP is fully resourced," he said.

The National Police Federation is calling on the federal government to commit in its next budget to increasing the number of classes that graduate from training every year to a minimum of 55 — which would amount to more than 1,700 new officers annually.

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