By Laura King
June 16, 2015, Toronto - There’s some tension on Twitter today between the province’s paramedics and the firefighters union. The issue? The Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association wants its firefighters to become fire-medics, and it has the ear of government.
“Fire-based EMS puts you and your family at risk,” the Ontario Paramedic Association (OPA) tweeted at noon today. “It’s a terrible idea. Tell your local councillor and MPP.”
An earlier tweet: “Fire-based EMS will bankrupt Ontario communities. Say NO to your local councillor and MPP.”
The OPFFA hadn’t tweeted about its proposed fire-medic program today and did not respond to the OPA tweets.
But the union’s fire-medic push is no secret. I spoke with OPFFA president Carmen Santoro about it – briefly – a couple of months ago, and at length today; it’s also the cover story of the summer issue of the OPFFA’s magazine, The Intrepid, which was just posted online at www.opffa.org.
As OPFFA executive vice-president Ernie Thorne outlines in his column on page 5, the fire-medic concept arose from a decline in responses to medical emergencies and subsequent meetings with management.
“What resulted from those discussions was, in many cases, utter frustration and disbelief,” Thorne says.
“Without any input from the association, many of those fire administrations had agreed to changes to the tiered-response matrix, which resulted in the fire service responding to fewer types of medical emergencies.”
In other words, fewer calls and less work for firefighters.
Thorne says locals wanted the service restored. In some cases, that happened, but not all municipalities agreed. That led to a resolution at the OPFFA’s convention a year ago.
The OPFFA has since worked with the IAFF to develop a proposal to establish fire-medics in Ontario, lobbied MPPs, and established a business plan that was presented to government in March.
A longer story, on page 18 of The Intrepid, details municipalities’ financial challenges, ambulance response times, and reasons that using fire resources to complement the existing response model “may result in improved clinical outcomes and reduce the response time and funding pressures being faced by the paramedic services.”
Fire-medics, the OPFFA says, are highly trained firefighters who can provide basic life support along with certain medical procedures and symptom relief.
Firefighters would need 20 hours of training under the supervision of a base hospital physician.
Eight pilot sites have been recommended by the OPFFA for the fire-medic program, to assess the benefits, costs and clinical outcomes.
The OPFFA says it is not asking to replace paramedics or for extra personnel, salaries or trucks.
The cost, the OPFFA says, to start a fire-medic program would be about $30,000, of which $13,000 would be for one-time expenses. The union has asked government to fund the pilot programs.
Santoro said Tuesday afternoon that his people are not responding on Twitter to the paramedic association tweets, and that there’s no animosity.
“We’ve said from Day 1 that paramedics are needed, they’re the higher medical authority, they do transports.”
But, he said, firefighters are strategically located to get to medical calls faster and it therefore it makes sense that they have certain medical skills.
“This is not about taking anybody’s job – we make that clear in our business plan; we’re not asking for any more money. We’re already staffing the stations; this is about us being in the fire stations responding to medical calls and being able to do more. We have to be there – all we’re doing is offering to do more with same amount of money.”
Santoro specifically said the introduction of fire-medics is not intended as a bargaining tool.
“Nowhere anytime in our discussions did we talk about getting a percentage increase – this has nothing to do with money. This is not to improve salary; this is the same money for more work, and that is rare for a union or labour group to be asking to do more for no more money.”
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario said in an email this afternoon that it has not been consulted.
‘Shockingly, and disappointingly neither the OPFFA or the Ontario government have shared their proposal with AMO,” said executive director Pat Vanini.
“We have heard indirectly that they are talking. We don’t know why they are not including us – the employers – in their conversations. Obviously, it’s not helpful and we can only guess at what may occur. The government is required to consult with us, which is their responsibility under the Ontario-AMO Memorandum of Understanding.”
The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs says it, too, is out of the loop.
“We understand that the OPFFA has been engaged in discussions at Queen’s Park on this issue but the province has failed to consult with AMO or the OAFC on this matter,” president Matt Pegg said in an email late Tuesday afternoon.
“The province has not yet signaled that the OPFFA fire-medic proposal is being given serious consideration.”
Pegg said the chiefs association is working with AMO to understand the impact of the fire-medic proposal on municipal fire services.
Ontario Paramedic Association president Geoff MacBride could not immediately be reached Tuesday.