Response time in fatal skydiving accident part of wider problem for rural Manitoba paramedics, union says

The lengthy wait for an ambulance to reach the site of a fatal skydiving accident last weekend illustrates the ongoing problems associated with widespread paramedic staff shortages in rural Manitoba, union leader Bob Moroz says.

The president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals criticized Shared Health, which oversees paramedic services in the province, after it released a statement on Tuesday partly attributing the wait time to “a high number of staff sick calls.”

Moroz called that an “awful” statement to make about his union members.

“What if you’re that paramedic who called in sick, because you’ve been working 12-hour shifts and you’ve been working so much overtime, you’re just so physically and mentally exhausted that you’re not able to attend work?” he said in an interview Wednesday with CBC Manitoba Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.

Jean du Toit, 53, died while skydiving near Gimli on Saturday. It took an ambulance 36 minutes to arrive, even though the Gimli hospital is a short drive from the skydiving site. 

Jean du Toit died in a skydiving accident on Saturday, her father, Gerrie du Toit, said. (Submitted by Gerrie du Toit)

Shared Health acknowledged the response time was “significantly longer” than its operational targets.

The provincial health agency said in an email that one Gimli ambulance was not in operation at the time, and the other was more than 80 kilometres away in the rural municipality of Eriksdale.

Staff shortages

Although it is not known whether a faster response time would have saved du Toit’s life, the union has repeatedly raised concerns about staff shortages in rural areas.

Between 20 and 25 per cent of ambulances crews are regularly out of commission because there aren’t enough staff to fill the legal requirement of two paramedics to a crew, Moroz said.

When one community does not have enough ambulances to respond to calls, crews from other communities are pulled in.

“The effect cascades across the province,” Moroz said.

Rebecca Clifton, a practising paramedic in the Interlake-Eastern health region and the administrative director of the Paramedic Association of Manitoba, says the problem with staffing in the region is nothing new. 

“It’s unfortunate because I don’t doubt that there are many previous incidents and there’s going to continue to be incidents that happen like this, where paramedics just simply can’t get to someone … when they should be there potentially a lot sooner,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

Earlier this year, the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals released internal data obtained from the Medical Transportation Coordination Centre, which handles the dispatch of emergency medical services in rural and northern Manitoba.

The data said in October 2021, out-of-service hours due to staff shortages reached a five-year high of 17,000 hours. By December, that had increased to 19,000 hours.

Average wait times in the last three months of 2021 were significantly higher than the same period three years earlier, the data said.

The biggest increase was in the Interlake-Eastern health region, which had a 35 per cent increase on average for 90 per cent of patients, compared to 23 per cent in Prairie Mountain Health, 19 per cent in the Northern Health Region and 10 per cent in Southern Health.

The union has also said a pay gap of as much as 10 per cent between rural and northern paramedics and those based in Winnipeg is another reason for the staff shortage.

“We don’t have enough education and training opportunities for young people to become paramedics, in and around the areas where they live and have grown up,” Moroz said.

35 new paramedics

Moroz said the union has put forward proposals, but the province hasn’t presented a plan to address the issue.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said her door is always open to hearing ideas, but the provincial government is taking steps to hire more paramedics.

“We have a clinical preventative services plan. Our government has invested $812 million in that plan. We’re going to see hubs established, care provided closer to home, wait times reduced,” she said.

The province recently opened two new paramedic stations in Crystal City and Portage la Prairie and purchased 65 new ambulances.

This year’s budget includes funding for 35 new paramedics across the province.

Moroz said at the time the budget was released that it would not be enough to make up the difference in rural and northern Manitoba.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for staffing relief for these paramedics. They are just being run and run and run,” he said.

Gordon said the province is aware of the disparity in pay between Winnipeg and rural paramedics, and recently discussed it with representatives from the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

“That’s one of [the issues] that our government is committed to addressing,” she said.

Response times worry residents

In the interim, some people who live in the area say they’re worried.

Johl Becker lives in Fraserwood, about 15 kilometres from Gimli. She says her grandparents have relied on ambulance services a number of times over the years.

“It’s really concerning. I don’t know if it’s staff or if it’s lack of funding what it is, but unfortunately I think the [response] times could be a little bit better if we’re relying on these people to help us,” she said.

Virginia Parent lives across from the hospital in Gimli. She wants the province to do something to address the wait times, especially if she ever needs an ambulance.

“I would want it to come right away — or within 10 minutes, I would hope, living across from from the hospital,” she said.

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