May 1 is a day we set aside to honour the skill and dedication of the workers we call on in emergencies: our first responders. CUPE Ontario proudly represents paramedics and dispatchers across the province and celebrates their commitment to serving us as Ontarians when we need urgent and potentially life-saving medical care.

Unfortunately, this First Responders Day finds Ontario’s emergency medical services in crisis, with stresses and strains that reflect those found in the wider healthcare sector.

Dispatchers and paramedics understand the importance of delivering speedy care to patients in homes, schools, businesses and even at the side of the road. But too often, dispatchers must triage requests for urgent care and paramedics – experts in pre-hospital care – are prevented from arriving at a health emergency with enough time to provide critical urgent care.

The reasons are several, but plain: across the province, health services, from paramedical to hospital, are understaffed and underfunded relative to demand. Yet those demands have escalated sharply in recent years, resulting in bottlenecks in hospital emergency rooms that then leave paramedics unable to transfer their patients. Ongoing privatization of other health services is only deepening the crisis.

Unfortunately, ambulance shortages are increasingly common. In September 2021, when CUPE surveyed 1,440 members across paramedic services in Ontario, 43 per cent said they faced daily Code Reds (also known as Code Blacks or Code Zeros, depending on the region). These are times when dispatchers have noambulances to send in response to 911 calls. According to statistics compiled by CUPE 416, Toronto Paramedic Services were in Code Red a staggering 1,139 times in 2021.

Based on conversations with members and other data that CUPE paramedic locals have obtained, Code Zeros have only increased since then. For instance, by July 2022, Ottawa Paramedic Service had already faced Code Zeros over 750 times, equalling in just seven months the total number of Code Zero incidents in 2021.

Ontario’s provincial and municipal governments share funding equally for paramedic services; both are accountable for better service to our communities. People calling 911 should not have to wonder if an ambulance is going to arrive in time. And paramedics should not have to forego meal breaks, perpetually work overtime, and risk injury because of chronic understaffing.

To enable dispatchers and paramedics to do their jobs, we need more of them. We also need greater investment in a health care system that is integrated into the needs of our communities. Both levels of government must take concrete steps to drive these improvements, which will deliver both better care for patients and better working conditions for dispatchers and paramedics. These demands include

  • formulating and implementing a provincial staffing strategy
  • investing in mental health benefits for staff
  • expanding the community paramedicine program
  • disclosing data on Code Zeros from all 59 paramedic services across Ontario.

These are modest demands that governments, beginning with Doug Ford’s PCs, must act on. Paramedics and dispatchers save lives every day. But they need more support to perform that job to the best of their abilities.

We can show our support by visiting 911 We Can’t Wait, learning more about the issues facing emergency medical service providers, and then signing the petition calling on the provincial government to fix our emergency services. First Responders Day offers a key opportunity to demonstrate our solidarity, as well as our gratitude for our first responders and the heroic work they do.