Vast majority of Ontarians want EMS to respond on 911 medical calls, not fire response

TORONTO—The president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) was not surprised by, and supports, a new provincial poll released last week that shows that Ontarians aren’t on board for recent Liberal government changes that would redirect 911 medical calls away from paramedic ambulance services to fire departments.

“Absolutely, I support what the poll shows,” stated Al Spacek, FONOM president when contacted last week by the Recorder. “We know the Ministry of Health has investments, changes, it could make to the entire system to provide for better patient outcomes in paramedic service funding,” said Mr. Spacek.

The provincial poll indicates that if Ontarians had to make a 911 call for medical assistance for themselves or a family member, more than 83 percent of the 2,500 Ontarians surveyed said they prefer a response by an ambulance service. Only 6.8 percent said they preferred a response by a fire department.

The poll was conducted late in 2017, immediately following the passing of changes to the Ambulance Act that could allow fundamental changes to 911 emergency medical response and pre-hospital care, say paramedics with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). These changes include allowing pilot projects in willing municipalities to experiment with using firefighters who also have a paramedic designation to respond to pre-hospital emergency medical calls.

When asked directly whether they would support government replacing an ambulance service response to some 911 medical calls with a fire department response, more than 70 percent of respondents said they were against the change. Just over 65 percent said they didn’t think allowing municipalities to replace ambulance services with fire department services on 911 medical calls would improve patient care.

The polling shows “that the province really doesn’t have Ontarian’s support to alter 911 medical response to redirect medical response to fire departments. Our findings show there is really no appetite for this. Ontarians understand both the patient care implications and the higher costs that will be incurred by municipalities if they province goes through with this model,” a release notes.

“The paramedics whom CUPE represents are strongly urging this government to put resources into enhancing ambulance paramedic response, not these fire experiments,” said Jason Fraser, chair of the CUPE Ambulance Committee of Ontario (CACO), which represents more than 5,500 paramedics at ambulance services province-wide. There are about 8,000 paramedics in Ontario.

“To date, no municipality has volunteered to run a pilot, although the province has said trials would be in place by March,” the CUPE release continues. “In fact, municipalities, through their provincial umbrella group, have come out against moving to a medical response through fire departments. A paramedic fire model would increase costs for municipalities as an hour of fire service is 55 percent higher in cost than an hour of ambulance service. Municipalities pay 100 percent for fire services through the local tax base while the province pays 50 percent of ambulance-based paramedic services.

“We need rational planning for our emergency services, not politically driven decisions. It appears that the only supporters of this model are the firefighters’ association that proposed it and the provincial Liberals are facilitating it,” said Mr. Fraser.