Editorial: Emergency Medical Services are essential, silly!

By Chris Tait

City paramedics went on and off strike this week as a result of frustrated negotiations with city hall, prompting an emergency plan that might have made the ambulances less than legal.

While both parties came to an agreement on most points, a rift remains on the issue of salary increases. The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3421 argues paramedics should receive comparative wages and wage increases with other city services, while the city doesn’t want to increase taxes.

In this time skyrocketing costs of living, unions are stirring themselves into action and, for the most part, they’re in the right. At the same time, though, stressing the system in an unnecessarily dangerous–possibly even deadly–way is absolutely unacceptable.

It’s really quite simple: with fewer vehicles available to safely transport casualties to medical centres, there is a higher likelihood of complications arising in a patient’s condition as a result of improper and delayed care.

CUPE 3421 president Bruce Robb commented this week that in order for the city’s ambulances to qualify legally, they would have to be operated by at least one paramedic. Knowing this, the union still wound up striking and knowingly put lives at risk over a pay agreement.

There is plenty of room in the circle of blame, though, and the union isn’t necessarily in the center of it.

While many emergency workers are classified under essential services by the Public Service Labour Relations Act, paramedics are not. Because of constant demand, essential services are not permitted to strike outright. Imagine what would happen if the Calgary Police Service could suddenly decide to go on strike for a week.

There is no excuse for EMS not to be considered an essential service. The legislation to raise our medical emergency workers to the same level of responsibility police and border security professionals should have been implemented years ago. Many other health care professionals are classified as essential as well, so it seems a stretch the people who provide them with patients should be left out. They are an important part of the system and their absence is illogical.

According to the CUPE website, EMS responds to roughly 25 per cent of all emergency calls. With over 400 paramedics off the job, one quarter of all emergency calls are left for someone else to deal with. In today’s human resources market, even with the city’s plan to have EMTs continue work, it’s hard to believe the replacement workers would be able to cover the demand. This leaves the rest of the work up to the other “essential” emergency services, namely police (who already deal with most 911 calls) and fire. The essential services, therefore, are already taking on the workload, making the paramedics’ exclusion from this classification even more absurd.

The move to make EMS essential, though it would strip the union of its right to strike, would likely improve workers’ treatment anyway. Workers under essential services agreements are paid fairly well (certainly better than paramedics are now, as the CUPE is quick to point out) and offer job security. The city would no longer have to scramble to set up illegal ambulances, either.

Both sides in this dispute are very much to blame for the current and ugly state of affairs. Hopefully when everything’s sorted, though, neither party will have to deal with the blame of a death resulting from negatively affected emergency medical service.

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