By Laura King
June 14, 2016, Toronto – The news out of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) conference in Collingwood yesterday – that the province will review the union’s firefighter/primary-care paramedic proposal – is not surprising to those who’ve been paying attention. But it sure hit a nerve.
“Premier @Kathleen_Wynne at #OPFFACon2016 announces OPFFA firefighter/primary care paramedic concept consultation,” the union tweeted Monday afternoon.
There’s no press release on the government website to explain the consultation process or which groups will be involved. And, oddly, no Tweets or retweets from Wynne’s office about the announcement.
There is, however, considerable frustration among paramedics. One tweet: “. . . such a waste of tax $ for a duplicate service.” Another: “@OPFFA @Kathleen_Wynne is this what $165, 912 liberal campaign donation buys you!” And: “Why pay more to create a redundant system? Sounds foolish and based on political pressure rather than wisdom.”
That the premier spoke at the conference 90 minutes north of Toronto – with Labour Minister Kevin Flynn and brand new Public Safety Minister David Michael Orazetti in tow – having announced a cabinet shuffle earlier in the day, says plenty about the OPFFA-liberal party relationship. (At the urging of the OPFFA, the government passed presumptive legislation for PTSD in April, a move the Association of Municipalities of Ontario says is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars.)
The timing of Wynne’s announcement is interesting given the situation in Chatham-Kent, where the third-party EMS provider’s contract expires at the end of the year and Fire Chief Ken Stuebing has proposed to council a blended fire/EMS service, which he says is the most cost effective and sustainable service model.
Council, of course, sets the level of service. Ambulance service, however, is regional, funded by the upper tier of government. Potentially changing the level of service provided by firefighters would likely prove to be an interesting exercise, and to what end? In a cash-strapped province in which the government has experienced myriad financial fumbles, giving firefighters the ability to administer certain patient-care procedures may help patients on scene but doing so gets no one to hospital faster.
Back in February, shortly after the PTSD legislation was introduced, OPFFA president Carmen Santoro (past-president as of yesterday) told me in an interview that the union was launching a campaign to promote its idea to expand the response capabilities of firefighters who are also paramedics. The union estimates that about 1,000 of its members – 10 per cent – are or were paramedics; some would have to upgrade their skills or re-certify.
“We will be aggressively lobbying all the relevant ministries and the premier’s office,” Santoro said. “The same committee that was working on fire-medic is now switching gears and looking into this model. PTSD is now out of the way but we’re going to be very aggressive in the coming months, with or without AMO and the fire chiefs.”
The original fire-medic proposal, which would have allowed firefighters with 20 hours of new training to administer certain symptom-relief medications, was sent to government in March 2015; it was revised after push back from paramedics and the province’s base hospital doctors, and lack of support from AMO. The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs says it has never officially been consulted on the matter.
While details were sparse when we chatted, Santoro said the proposed firefighter/primary-care paramedic system would be based on the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service structure.
Back in February, the ministry of health hadn’t requested a costing out of the proposal, Santoro said, but the province would be asked to cover the training required to get firefighters back up to a certain standard.
“[The cost] will be a lot less than the fire medic, that’s for sure,” Santoro said. “Even the fire-medic costs, they called that nominal. As a matter of fact, it should reflect huge cost savings for the ministry.”
It also wasn’t clear how such a system would be rolled out – through pilot sites perhaps, as was proposed in the original fire-medic plan – or if it would eventually be province-wide or in select communities.
“It’s an underutilized service to help with an overburdened service,” Santoro said.
Santoro acknowledged that while some firefighters who were formerly paramedics left the job because of frustration over hospital wait times, it’s equally as frustrating for a firefighter with paramedic training to stand around and wait for an ambulance to show up while watching patients suffer.
“Our goal is to have a paramedic on every fire truck at all times – eventually, when everyone realizes that this is the way of the future.”
The paramedics, I suspect – at least those in Ontario’s overburdened municipalities – have a different vision.