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January 25, 2011

Toronto ambulance chief requests 90 more medics

The Toronto Star

TORONTO — Making sure Toronto ambulances routinely respond to life-threatening emergencies within nine minutes would take adding 90 paramedics over the next three years, ambulance chief Bruce Farr said Monday.

Response times have been slipping: Paramedics showed up within nine minutes only 62 per cent of the time last year. But the request to beef up their ranks hasn't gained support from senior city staff or the budget committee.

Farr may have another chance to make his case to the city's executive committee before the 2011 budget is set in stone. But it won't be an easy sell, given the pressure Mayor Rob Ford is already under to meet a pre-election promise of reducing the city-wide payroll.

Figures released to the budget committee the same day show that the proposed operating and capital budgets (combined) would actually expand the city workforce by 447 positions, to a total of 53,336 permanent and temporary staff.

The operating side of the budget alone cuts 470 positions but adds 518 new ones, for a net gain of 48. Many of those jobs are at the TTC, as it struggles to cope with surging ridership.

Meanwhile, emergency services have been slipping in their response time targets, from 64 per cent in 2009 to 62 per cent last year.

While emergency calls have increased 21 per cent since 2003 - to 23,700 calls a month in 2009 - the service has added only eight paramedics, Farr said. It has 849 paramedics in all.

Finance staff say hiring 90 more would cost $9.4 million over the next four years. Because the province pays half, the hit on the city budget would be about $4.7 million.

Mark Ferguson, president of the union representing paramedics, said the slowing of response times has "come to the point where something needs to be done or public safety will suffer."

Farr said he's also concerned about morale among paramedics. "They're not seeing any downtime on their shifts," he said. "They're going from one call to the next, they're being forced to work overtime at the end of their shifts, and in many cases they're not getting their lunches."

With 30 paramedics this year, the service could put an extra four ambulances on the road during the day and two more at night.

In a fiscal plan released Oct. 8, Ford promised to cut the workforce by 3 per cent per year, for savings in 2011 alone of $67 million.

That was based on the assumption that 6 per cent of city workers would leave in a given year, and only half would be replaced. But city staff now report that the attrition rate for 2010 was just 2.98 per cent.

"I think we might be witnessing the mayor kind of getting hoisted on his own petard," said Councillor Shelley Carroll, the former budget chief. "Every year, there are positions that go up because they're driven by ridership, revenues that come in, gross amounts when other governments order us to run a program for them. ... I think Mayor Ford and his staff are finding out this is a complex organism, the City of Toronto."

Many departments are proposing to cut jobs in line with a directive from city manager Joe Pennachetti to reduce spending by 5 per cent.

They include employment and social services, which says it can slash 20 jobs by automating and eliminating "certain manual processes," and cut a further 48 temporary positions because of a reduction in projected caseload. The clerk's office, city manager's office and transportation are among other departments reporting a drop in staffing.

Leading the list of those wanting more staff is the TTC. Its operating budget envisions a net increase of 221 positions, most of them drivers. The budget committee ends deliberations Tuesday. After it votes, the operating and capital budgets will go to full council in late February.

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