Essential services across Canada hit by staff shortages due to COVID-19

Emergency services in many major Canadian cities are facing staffing shortages due to a surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, with police, ambulance and fire all scrambling to redeploy and bolster their ranks.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant is already forcing small and large business across Canada to close their doors as infected or potentially infected employees are forced into isolation. But staff shortages are also becoming an issue for some emergency services.

For example, many police services across the country are reporting higher levels of their front-line officers away because of illness or isolation caused by COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of concern and it is having an impact,” said Tom Stamatakis, national president of the Canadian Police Association.

Not all cities are impacted. The Vancouver Police Department said Wednesday it doesn’t have any current concerns with staffing levels. 

But in Winnipeg, the city’s police chief announced on Wednesday that he was declaring a “state of emergency” for the Winnipeg Police Service as it now faces “some real challenges ahead.”

“The current COVID-19 situation has significantly impacted our staffing resources,” Chief Danny Smyth said in a statement.

Of the roughly 1,900 police service employees, there are currently 90 active COVID-19 cases with 170 personnel on COVID-19-related leave, he said. The state of emergency declaration allows him more leeway in redeployment of officers to shore up the ranks of general patrol. 

Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth declared a state of emergency over staffing levels due to COVID-19, which gives him more leeway to redeploy officers. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Other cities are also facing shortages among their police staff. In Edmonton, about eight per cent of police services staff are away because of COVID-19.

And in Calgary, the city’s police service currently has the highest number of coronavirus infections among employees since the start of the pandemic, according to Susan Henry, chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA).

“To minimize disruption to emergency services, Calgary police have started to redeploy officers from other areas of the organization to support the front-line workers who are already stretched thin prior to this wave of COVID-19,” she said during a Wednesday morning news conference.

This will impact other services that are provided by Calgary police, including proactive community policing, youth intervention and support services, as well as the increased length of investigation for some offences, she said.

However, Stamatakis of the Canadian Police Association said that so far, despite the police staffing shortages, he hasn’t yet heard of massive cases of infection that have affected deployment.

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“I think the way it’s affecting deployment at the moment has been managed either through redeploying resources or having people come in on overtime,” he said. 

For the most part, he believes police will always have the resources to deploy to 911, life threatening, and safety-type calls. But there may be no capacity to send units to less serious crimes, he said

“You redeploy your resources, you start collapsing units, follow up units, investigative units. But the problem with that is that work doesn’t get done and it just sits there,” he said. 

Which then undermines the likelihood of successfully investigating and ultimately prosecuting.”

Along with police, COVID-19 is also impacting the staffing levels of firefighters and paramedics in some cities.

Montreal firefighters help a man out of a seniors residence following a fire in April. The surge in COVID-19 cases has presented unique staffing challenges, says the city’s firefighter’s union president. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Erin Madden, a spokesperson for Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said in an email to CBC News that around five per cent of their workforce have confirmed COVID-19.

“The department continues to monitor the situation closely, and thus far has been able to cover most staffing shortfalls through overtime,” she said.

In Nova Scotia, Charbel Daniel, executive director of provincial operations with Emergency Health Services, which operates the province’s ambulance system, said in an email to CBC News that “there’s no doubt we are feeling similar pressure on our staff resourcing and scheduling as other frontline healthcare providers in Nova Scotia and jurisdictions around the world.”

In Edmonton, Chief Joe Zatylny of Edmonton Fire Rescue Services said on Wednesday that almost five per cent of the force’s front-line firefighters are currently off work because of COVID-19. Zatylny said they will backfill using off-duty staff to make sure “we can meet our core service demands.”

In a statement, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services said: “We are definitely seeing higher numbers of staff off but are still maintaining our response capabilities for the City of Vancouver.”

Chris Ross, president of the Montreal Firefighters Association, said that since the start of the pandemic, about 325 members have tested positive for COVID-19. But close to 200 of those have been in the last two to three weeks.

“One case comes in positive and then within a couple of days we have three or four or five or six other guys that were in close contact in the same station that develop symptoms and also test positive,” he said “So it’s presented unique staffing challenges that I don’t think we’ve ever had to face before.”

Staffing shortages are being dealt with through voluntary and mandatory overtime and, in some situations, bringing back those who were infected only five days after they’ve been in isolation, he said. 

The executive director of provincial operations with Emergency Health Services, which operates the Nova Scotia’s ambulance system, says they are also feeling pressure on their staff resourcing (Tom Ayers/CBC)

As for the staffing shortage’s actual impact on the public, it will probably go unnoticed “in the sense that your first arriving fire truck is probably going to still arrive in more or less at the same time,” Ross said.

“But the second, third, fourth, fifth or the extra fire trucks that would show up at an incident. Those are the ones that are going to arrive from a little bit farther away.”

Earlier this week, Matthew Pegg, the City of Toronto’s general manager of emergency management, said their firefighters are being sent first to low-priority calls to ensure paramedics are free to respond to calls involving serious injury or requiring transport to hospital.

“Response times, particularly for low priority calls, may increase from pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

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