Island paramedics beginning to feel the pinch

Ryan Cooke comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 19, 2013
Paramedic

When Morissa Ings graduates from the Holland College Primary Care Paramedicine program this summer, she’ll be looking at two guarantees.

One, there won’t be any full-time work available for her in her home province of P.E.I.

Two, the prospect of heading to Alberta will be ringing in her head.

“There’s a huge temptation. Out there, as a primary care paramedic, we can make $350-plus a day.”

With a three week-on, two week-off schedule, that translates to about $150,000 each year, over three times what she could make at home.

It’s a trend that P.E.I. Paramedics Union leader Jason Woodbury has noticed growing in his field, and he fears the effect it will have on Islanders.

“You’re starting to see a lot more of it,” he said. “There’s a lot of leave of absence requests coming through to the employers with regards to leaving to pursue a career in the western part of the country.”

While he says the outmigration of paramedics isn’t at a critical point yet, it’s hurtling towards it.

The demographic of the fleeing medics is the most troubling part, he said.

“It seems to be the younger generation. They finish their schooling at Holland College and the opportunities are not all that bright for fulltime employment on P.E.I.”

Despite the allure of Western Canada to young workers, there needs to be a structured plan in place to keep young paramedics from leaving, he said.

If not, things could reach that dire point.

“It’s going to put a tremendous amount of strain on Prince Edward Island,” he said. “Government and management and union need to sit down and talk before it gets critical.”

A big part of the problem is the lack of fulltime work available for a rookie paramedic coming out of school, he said. While there is casual work available locally, the same work can be found in Alberta with much higher wages.

Woodbury said the effects of it are already being seen, with more overtime being offered and more shifts going unmanned.

It’s a trend that has caused a fuss in Nova Scotia over the last week, with union leader Terry Chapman saying morale is at an all-time low.

As many as 90 advanced care paramedics have left the region to find work in Western Canada, he estimates.

Tyler MacCuspic, a Cape Breton native studying Advanced Paramedicine at Holland College, said working conditions in Nova Scotia are not ideal at the moment.

While he would rather move to Alberta, the Baddeck, N.S. native has worked as a paramedic at home for several years and has a guaranteed fulltime position in Cape Breton after he graduates.

With an abundance of outmigration, the open positions are being filled with younger paramedics, like himself.

Along with lack of experience, a lack of familiarity with the terrain poses a major threat.

“If you don’t know the area, it can be really, really confusing,” he said. “You’re it. There’s no one that can come help you out… you have to be on your game.”

At home, Ings hasn’t been able to get away from talk about what’s going on in Nova Scotia.

Unlike MacCuspic and Chapman, Ings sees the pros along with the cons.

“While it’s a little scary of a thought, at the same time, it’s kind of a positive thing for us new beginners. Employment-wise, it opens up a lot of doors for us.”

However, the cons can leave some scary situations hiding behind those doors.

With there being some duties primary care paramedics cannot administer, and a lack of advanced care paramedics due to outmigration, people like Ings could find themselves in helpless situations.

“My scary thought is that if I need that (additional help), is it going to be available to me when that patient needs it?”

In P.E.I., the scary thoughts extend beyond paramedicine.

Woodbury, who is the fire chief in Miscouche, said he’s seen several leave of absence requests come across his desk from young firefighters heading West.

“It’s the whole EMS system,” he said. “We’re starting to see this trickle effect within the fire service as well, with the retention and demand for volunteer firefighters within the province.”

Until opportunities in P.E.I. can shine near as bright as those in Alberta, Woodbury believes things are only going to get worse for everybody, not just emergency services.

“It makes it very difficult. These rural communities are going to be dormant if employment doesn’t change.”