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‘Safety biggest issue right now’ as paramedic calls growing more hostile

Tyler Onofrio has been a medic in the Sault for 18 years and says the job has become more dangerous for the first responders, who often arrive on scenes prior to police

Tyler Onofrio has been a paramedic in Sault Ste. Marie for 18 years, but he says over the past eight years he and his fellow paramedics have been stepping into
situations that have become increasingly more dangerous.

"Three weeks ago I was assaulted on scene," he told Douglasfosterbooks, during an information picket held Friday at The Rink outside of The Machine Shop. "I pressed my panic button and it took police almost 10 minutes to arrive."

His union local is currently in negotiations with the employer, District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB), not only for an increase in salary, but also for additional training and equipment to deal with more and more dangerous calls for service.

In the most recent assault he faced, Onofrio said he and his partner had to subdue the assailant with minimal force as they waited for police back up. He said
these kinds of calls have become all too common, as paramedics are often first on the scene.

"We're walking into scenarios where we're being exposed to drugs scattered everywhere. People aren't calling and giving these addresses to city police, they are
calling them in as medical incidents," said Onofrio. "We're seeing cocaine and fentanyl being spread all over and people are smoking in front of us."

Onofrio would like to see paramedics equipped with restraints appropriate for use in these situations, as well as the training to go along with it.

"Safety is my biggest issue right now," said Onofrio. "We've had paramedic stuck by dirty needles, we've had paramedics bit and put on prophylaxis for six to
eight months because we don't know where that needle is from."

Reached for comment, DSSAB CEO Mike Nadeau said safety concerns are usually handled through the Occupational Health and Safety Act, not through the collective bargaining process.

About 60 members of UNIFOR Local 1359 and their supporters participated in an information picket on Friday during a paid "fun day" for DSSAB employees held at The Rink outside of The Machine Shop. The union local is still asking the DSSAB to come back to the bargaining table to resolve the contract negotiations, while the employer has said it would prefer the mater be solved through arbitration.

Mary Casola, the vice-president of UNIFOR Local 1359, said it's important for members to demonstrate during the fun day, during which DSSAB employees were being paid and provided lunch at a cost to the taxpayers, while paramedics are still negotiating for a fair wage approaching what is paid to fellow first responders like firefighters and police.

"We just question if today, being a fun day where everybody gets off paid eight hours straight time to have a fully funded meal and and barbecue, while the paramedics also being employees don't have that luxury of being off today?" Casola said.

Nadeau said the team-building event has been held since 2015 and is open to all employees, though he noted some on-duty paramedics and daycare staff are unable to attend due to work schedules. Workers who are usually off on the day the event is scheduled are offered the option to attend and be paid, he said.

Some on-duty paramedics participated in the fun day festivities, while off-duty members participated in the information picket.

"The ones that are off duty are holding a flag and a sign to let the employer know that we want to go back to the table and negotiate," said Casola.

UNIFOR's national office has begun the process of applying for an essential service agreement, which would need to be in place before a strike can be conducted. Paramedics are not considered essential workers in Ontario and may strike.

Local 1359 paramedic unit chair Hannah Fairburn said previously that if a strike were to occur, emergency response would still continue in the community. But non-emergency services provided by paramedics, like the Community Paramedicine program, would be halted.

Editor's note: a previous version of this story misquoted Mike Nadeau as saying the safety concerns are dealt with through the Employment Standards Act.

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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