Ottawa paramedics no longer running out of ambulances every day

After years struggling with slow response times, rising call volumes and hours-long delays at hospital, Ottawa paramedic Chief Pierre Poirier has noticed a rare bit of good news in his daily reports.

On some days, at least, he's no longer running out of ambulances.

The trend started after the paramedic call centre switched to a more modern dispatch system in April.

It's better at triaging between less urgent and more urgent calls. It has also allowed paramedics to hold some non-life-threatening calls in the queue, saving ambulances for cases where minutes and seconds count most.

"That really has changed for us the occurrence of level zero, which have plummeted over the last several months," Poirier said.

Level zero events, when there are no ambulances available to respond to new calls, have been at frightening levels for years. Last year, there were 1,672 — a 7.7 per cent decrease from the year before.

Poirier didn't have the precise data for this year after he presented the Ottawa Paramedic Service's annual report at the city's emergency and protective service's committee, but he said the change for the better is noticeable.

"I'm not seeing level zero every day," he said.

Offload delays at hospital still 'horrendous'

But the service's other main challenge hasn't seen much improvement.

Paramedics are still spending hours waiting to transfer patients to hospital staff, holding up ambulances that could be out responding to new calls.

Poirier said 2024 looks much the same as 2023, when paramedics spent a cumulative 102,105 hours stranded at ERs. According to the service's annual report, that was the equivalent of losing 47 staff.

"When you put that in context, that's horrendous," said Poirier.

Ottawa paramedic chief Pierre Poirier, seen here in June 2023, has waited for a new dispatch system for two decades, but he says he's just happy Ottawa will finally get to implement it in 2024.
Ottawa paramedic chief Pierre Poirier says the change for the better is noticeable this year. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The report notes that the industry standards is a 30 minute delay at the ER, nine times out of 10. But no Ottawa hospitals were meeting that target last year. The Montfort Hospital had the longest delays, at 234.4 minutes last year according to that measure.

Coun. Riley Brockington, who chairs the committee, fears it will only get worse.

"This has been a chronic issue in our city," he said. "It will continue to hamper our ability to get paramedics back on the road where they need to be, and not spend hours in ERs."

Councillors want provincial money for fix

Brockington's committee voted for a motion pressing the provincial government for a fix.

If it passes at a full meeting of council next week, the motion would have the mayor write to the minister of health about a key request from The Ottawa Hospital: an extra $4.5 million for the Dedicated Offload Nurses Program (DONP).

The program funds health professionals specifically tasked with taking patients from paramedics. The extra money would be enough to hire 17 full-time staff.

Coun. Riley Brockington asked transit staff who will pay for ongoing work to diagnose and respond to ongoing technical issue on Ottawa's LRT.
River ward Coun. Riley Brockington says 'the minister of health must say this is a problem.' (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"The minister of health must say this is a problem," said Brockington. "She has to acknowledge this is a problem in our city and across the province and the resources in particular that The Ottawa Hospital has asked for, particularly in their ERs, needs to be provided by the ministry."

In an emailed statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Health responded that Ottawa's DONP funding went up from $2.6 million in 2022-2023 to $2.84 million in 2023-2024. The ministry has also previously noted that the funding wasn't fully used.

Poirier said there's a simple reason for that: the extra money came too late in the year.

He said paramedics first got about $1.5 million, gave it to the hospitals, and then got another million near the end of the fiscal year.

"We're like, uh, do we have any time to plan for this, to prepare for this?" he said. "We're willing to be nimble, but we still need time to be able to incorporate, to make sure we spend that money wisely."

With enough headway on the extra $4.5 million request, Poirier said paramedics and hospitals can work together to get the staff in place.