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Union sounds alarm over shortage of available ambulances

Eastern Heatlh ambulance
Eastern Heatlh ambulance

Red alerts have become everyday occurrences for paramedics in the St. John’s metro region, and the union that represents them is demanding action.

A red alert means there are no more ambulances available to respond if another call comes in. The Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE) says this happened 372 times in 2016.

More than half of those red alerts — 196 — were Level 1, which means a call came in when there were no ambulances available. The rest were Level 2, meaning no calls came in.

“While there has been a reduction since 2015 in the number of red alerts, our members and our union are still concerned about where we stand on this critical matter,” NAPE president Jerry Earle said in a news release Tuesday. “This is a service where every second counts. Every red alert is a situation that could mean life or death. The goal must be zero red alerts. The government and Eastern Health have to provide the resources available to allow our members to make that goal a reality.”

Earle recalled a report released by Eastern Health in 2015 (based on an external review by Pomax Consulting Inc.) that made a series of recommendations for improving paramedicine and medical transport issues in the region, including reducing red alerts.

“Some of the recommendations in the Pomax report were acted on and implemented right away. However, to the best of our knowledge, many of the recommendations have not been implemented or provided funding since,” Earle said. “So while we have seen some level of improvement since the release of the Pomax report, we are very concerned that the government and Eastern Health are not following through on their commitments in 2016 and 2017. We are fearful that this may lead to a degradation of service, including increases in red alerts going forward.”

Earle called on Health Minister John Haggie and Eastern Health CEO David Diamond to address the issue immediately.

“Anything short of that would be unacceptable,” he said.

In a statement sent to The Telegram, Eastern Health said it has implemented a number of the Pomax report’s recommendations. Those include adding two new ambulances with four primary care paramedics and four advanced care paramedics (equalling 164 hours of added ambulances per week in the city); adding one full-time equivalent logistics technician; adding a ground support vehicle for the air ambulance team; adding six full-time equivalent positions at the Labrador air ambulance base; implementing radio engineering analysis of radio communications; and adding a new helipad in Burin.

A new dispatch centre is also under construction in St. John’s, and Eastern Health says that should be operational sometime this year.

“Since implementing these recommendations, Eastern Health has seen a significant reduction of red alerts. Over the 2015 and 2016 calendar years (pre/post initial resource enhancement), Eastern Health saw a 34.4 per cent reduction in red alert incidents, with a total reduction of time in red alert by 35 per cent. The fiscal year 2014-2015 to fiscal year 2015-2016 saw call volume increased by four per cent,” the health authority said.

“Eastern Health continues to monitor, collect data, assess the demands for ambulance and professional paramedic care on an ongoing basis, and develops strategies to prioritize and ensure the most efficient use of its ambulance services.”

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