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Red Deer city council grapples over how to afford enough new EMS workers to fill local demand

A city protective services manager wanted twice as many new fire/medics as fit the proposed budget

Red Deer city council is considering hiring only half the additional fire/medics that are being sought for the next two years by the EMS department head and firefighters’ union.

Ken McMullen, general manager of protective services for the city, had wanted to hire 20 additional fire/medics in 2023. He told council the existing shortage of EMS frontline staff is leaving existing fire/medics exhausted from working too much overtime and taking more mental health leaves.

Although this same number of additional fire/medics is also being sought by the local firefighters union over the next two years (the union wants 10 extra to be hired in 2023 and 10 in 2024), this number of new EMS salaries didn’t fit city council’s targeted tax increase of 4.79 per cent in 2023 and 4.38 per cent in 2024.

Instead, city council is looking at approving only 10 new fire/medics in total over both years — eight additional staffers in 2023 and two more in 2024.

These would be part of the additional $5.5 million for 2023 and $1.2 million for 2024 that are pegged for that department in the proposed budget.

McMullen cautioned that the “bare bones” hiring of only 10 fire/medics in total could take an ongoing toll on front-line EMS workers, who will still struggle to keep up with a 33 per cent rise in call volumes in recent years.

No new fire/medics have been hired by the city since 2015.

Stephen Belich, president of Red Deer Firefighters Local 1190, wrote to council saying 10 new fire/medics really need to be hired in each of the next two years to “allow our department to get our heads above water.”

Both Belich and McMullen stressed that existing EMS staff are working excessive overtime hours amid a health care crisis. Long-term leaves have increased and more firefighters are leaving the job, so retention has become a challenge.

With a sharp increase in calls, due to the health care crisis and pandemic, McMullen noted most members of the department working more than full-time. “We are down nine to 12 bodies per shift, every day.”

Belich added, “We must fight for what we feel is the largest issue in our great city.”

The eight and two new front-line EMS hires that are proposed for 2023 and 2024 “will not give our department what it needs to move forward and continue to provide first-class fire-EMS services,” he added.

McMullen later said he does not support the “bare bones” EMS hiring in the proposed budget. But the City of Red Deer’s fiscal reality required his department to pare down what was initially wanted to fit within the tax increase city council has targeted.

In light of this, the official administrative recommendation is to hire four fire/medics with ongoing (tax) funding and four more from one-time (reserve) funding in 2023. Then, to hire two new firefighters with ongoing funds for 2024, as well as to renew the one-time funding for the four fire/medics that were hired that way in 2023 to keep them in the department.

Mayor Ken Johnston praised McMullen, who’s working on a new contract with Alberta Health Services in hopes of getting three-to-five additional ambulances for the city, for his ‘“courage” in bringing these issues to council.

Before passing the multi-year budget later this week, city council could opt to increase the number of EMS fire/medics hired over the next two years by reducing costs in other departments.