District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board voted unanimously Thursday night to add eight permanent full-time paramedics to help cope with an unprecedented surge in ambulance calls.
The commitment to add a new 24-hour ambulance crew will increase the 2022 Social Services budget by $1.39 million.
Two part-time paramedic positions will also be added to fill out the new crew.
The costly decision was made after Robert Rushworth, Sault Ste. Marie's chief of paramedic services, warned last month that ambulance calls had risen about 25 per cent since January – a growth unlike anything he'd witnessed in his career.
"Things have definitely changed faster than we've ever seen in our history in the Sault," Chief Rushworth told his board at Thursday night's meeting. "It is happening across the province."
"It's not like a summer rush or anything. It's the new normal."
Much of the effort expended by Sault paramedics from January until the end of August was spent on 2,682 calls involving patients that refused to be transported to hospital, Rushworth said.
"People calling again and again...on the bench or on the grass somewhere in nice weather. We go and we wake them up and send them on their way. They don't need an ambulance. They don't want an ambulance. They don't know why the paramedics are there. After an hour or 40 minutes, an hour later we're back calling on that same person because some concerned citizen maybe didn't even stop and made a 911 call."
"That ties up a lot of resources and a lot of time, puts a lot of stress on the paramedics going out lights and sirens...being to told to 'f-off and leave me alone because I'm sleeping on the bench. Why are you bothering me?'"
Another major inefficiency, Rushworth said, is the limited capacity of Sault Area Hospital's emergency department to transfer care from paramedics, who spend about 400 hours a month waiting for the hospital to accept patients.
Between 30 and 40 per cent of total ambulance calls in Sault Ste. Marie involve patients with mental health or addictions issues, accounting for about 4,000 calls from January until the end of August, he said.
Barring other unexpected changes, the 10 new paramedics will add $650,000 to the 2022 levy, a 4.5 per cent increase.
"I do not expect things to remain exactly the same for the 2022 budget cycle," warns David Petersson, the board's finance manager.