Level zero ambulance problem worsens dramatically in Ottawa in 2022

Ottawa has faced an unprecedented number of

Ottawa has faced an unprecedented number of “level zero” cases, with no ambulances available to respond to emergencies. (Jean Delisle/Radio-Canada – photo credit)

Ottawa’s Emergency Medical Service saw a dramatic spike in “level zero” cases — when there are no ambulances to respond to an emergency call — over the past year, with more than doubling the number of incidents in 2021, a previous record high.

In all, there were 1,819 such incidents in 2022, or 74,216 minutes without an ambulance to respond to an emergency in the country’s capital.

“That equates to almost seven weeks without an ambulance being available to transport a person,” Ottawa City Medical Chief Pierre Poirier told councilors Monday on the Emergency Preparedness and Protection Services Committee.

The committee would continue to approve 14 more paramedic hires in the 2023 budget, the same number of additional positions added annually under the last city council.

“It’s a big concern for me and for the emergency services,” said Poirier.

Poirier said the “number one driver” for the problem remains the same. Paramedics wait long hours in emergency rooms to get patients into the hospital system before they can be released for new calls.

It’s been a problem for many years, but things have gotten worse lately.

The figure for 2022 increased almost 2.5 times from the 750 incidents in 2021, which was already unprecedented and included a holiday period in 2021 in which the emergency services remained at level zero for up to 15 hours at a time.

In one instance, an ambulance from Gananoque, Ontario had to be called to take a call in Ottawa because it was the closest.

Jean Delisle/CBC

Jean Delisle/CBC

Hospital issues lead to continued Level Zero: Medic Chief

“It’s one of those problems that’s in many ways unsolvable,” Poirier told CBC News. “We often use the term ‘health crisis’ and we are part of it. That doesn’t mean we’ll ever stop looking for solutions or ways to contain it.”

The city sees the shortage of ambulances as part of a larger problem with the province’s healthcare system, so it has been working with local hospitals to improve hospital transfer times. The Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus created a temporary 40-bed unit in 2020 to accommodate these delays. The city of Ottawa is also assigning paramedics to other hospitals’ emergency rooms to monitor patients so ambulances are ready to go again.

Poirier concedes that these efforts “somehow” failed to solve the problem given the crisis in hospitals with staffing levels and patients using emergency beds when their needs are best met elsewhere, such as in long-term care.

Former Mayor Jim Watson had written to the Ontario government in January and August 2022 to call for more aid, calling the delays at hospitals a “public safety issue”.

The August request for additional $5 million in core funding for 42 more paramedics has yet to be met, Poirier said. However, late last year the province confirmed additional funding for a nurse dedicated to reducing delays in transferring patients, he said.

Kate Porter/CBC

Kate Porter/CBC


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