Rescue rage

Paramedics targets of public’s anger

Olivia Chan, Calgary paramedic assaulted when answering a call

THEY’RE WORK INCLUDES GETTING YELLED AT, SPIT ON, PUNCHED. It’s not supposed to, but that’s the way it is more and more often for paramedics in Nova Scotia these days.

One of the latest incidents occurred in December, when two paramedics were assaulted by a 54-year-old man during a morning callout in Halifax.

“It doesn’t happen a whole lot, but it is increasing, unfortunately,” says Michael Nickerson, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 727, that represents the paramedics.

“I’ve experienced people pulling knives on me and my partner at different times throughout my career.”

The two paramedics in the December incident were lucky to come away from the situation without serious injury, says Nickerson.

Mounting workloads

The growing danger of assaults parallels cuts to health care funding by the Nova Scotia government that reduced the number of paramedics. This short staffing impacts paramedics and the public. It means there are not enough paramedics to keep all ambulances on the road 24/7; which, in turn, means fewer ambulances to answer calls and longer shifts for the paramedics on the road. It is a recipe for dissatisfaction and anger all around.

“Our guys are supposed to work 12 hours but they’re getting 14 or 15 hour shifts,” Nickerson explained. It’s no surprise his members are more than a little upset. “It’s the fact of no recognition, the long hours, not getting proper breaks when they’re supposed to. It’s a combination of all that,” he says.

The IUOE wants the government and their employer, Emergency Health Services, to work together to hire more personnel. This is the the main challenge for paramedics, says Nickerson.

The problem keeps getting worse because there is an overall rise in demand for ambulance services in Nova Scotia. “The call volumes go up every single year,” added Nickerson. “Paramedics are just running call after call, covering areas that they don’t work, and they’re getting worn out, they’re tired.”

Not just  Nova Scotia

None of this is unique to paramedics in Nova Scotia. In Thunder Bay, Ontario, there were 52 reported incidents of assault on paramedics between September 2016 and October 2019.

The ambulance service reached an agreement with the Thunder Bay Police Service to share information about 911 calls to provide extra information and protection to paramedics. In Nova Scotia, Nickerson reports that paramedics are also increasingly relying on police officers to scope out emergency situations before the paramedics intervene to offer assistance.

“As for the violence, both physical and verbal, it is frustrating and demoralizing,” comments Murray Sweitzer, a paramedic in Thunder Bay. “I’m just here to make sure you see tomorrow.”

Raising public awareness

In August, around 20 paramedics wearing orange armbands attended a court hearing in Calgary for a man accused of assaulting one of their colleagues. The aim of the action was to raise public awareness about the threats first responders face every day.

Richard Agnew, one of the paramedics, says changes are required to the law to better protect first responders. “The court cases are not unusual, unfortunately,” Agnew added. “What’s unusual here today is that we do have an outpouring of support for our co-worker.”

Change required

Cuts to social and health care services deliver a double whammy: they make the worklife of health care workers even more stressful and sometimes even dangerous; they also leave us all angry and frurstrated by the lack of services we pay taxes to receive.

The longer our governments remain convinced stricter and stricter budget austerity offers an answer, the deeper the frustration, anger and potential for danger will grow. This will leave paramedics, and all other frontline healthcare workers, all alone to bear the psychological, emotional and sometimes physical blows of it all.

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