The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is seeking to change its workplace culture following infighting in its ranks, months after a call to break up the integrated emergency agency.
The service hopes to hire a private consultant to create a "culture-shift plan," according to a new city request for proposal.
"WFPS is faced with ongoing challenges related to cultural attitudes. WFPS would like to establish a culture that is shared by all WFPS team members thereby having a positive impact on the organizational performance and staff well-being," the document states.
The effort follows a string of disputes within the department that led both the union that represents city firefighters and the one that represents paramedics to call to divide the emergency workers earlier this year.
In March, the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union wrote to Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, asking him to immediately remove paramedics from city fire halls, arguing conflicts with firefighters were creating an unsafe working environment.
A few days after the MGEU letter, the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg called for the provincial government to take over ambulance services in Winnipeg.
The letters came after a paramedic accused two firefighter colleagues of refusing to help treat a seriously injured Indigenous woman last fall, and alleged their actions were racially motivated. A firefighter has since filed a defamation lawsuit against a paramedic over those allegations.
In a statement of defence, the paramedic denied that claim and sought a court order to stop the firefighter from allegedly sharing "defamatory statements."
The allegations have not been proven in court.
On Monday, MGEU welcomed the new project to improve the WFPS workplace.
"We’re pleased to see the City of Winnipeg taking this step. It’s important and critical that the workplace culture at the WFPS be addressed to ensure no one is targeted by racism, sexism or any other form of harassment. For far too long this workplace has been very toxic, and we’re looking forward to a new beginning under new leadership," Kyle Ross, the union’s president, said in an emailed statement.
The request for proposal does not specifically mention the internal disputes. It does note a 2020 workplace cultural assessment found gaps between an ideal culture and current reality, with changes needed to ensure staff well-being and the best possible service for Winnipeggers.
UFFW leaders did not respond to requests for comment by deadline Monday. Union president Alex Forrest, who recently announced he won’t run for re-election, appeared to be out of town.
Fire Paramedic Chief Christian Schmidt listed improving workplace relations as a key goal when he was promoted to the job in August, after John Lane retired.
"There are certain facets or areas where work needs to be done and, to be quite frank, there needs to be more (accountability) as a result of people’s actions and to ensure that people are in step with the organization’s values," Schmidt told the Free Press at the time.
The WFPS chief wasn’t available for an interview Monday. In a written statement, he indicated the service’s working environment remains tense.
"The current (workplace) culture, in general, was found to involve members interacting with other people in cautious and tentative ways to protect their own security," said Schmidt.
While the department has already started anti-racism training, Schmidt said the culture plan "will outline desired behaviours that are consistent with a healthy workplace, and that includes respect and anti-discrimination measures."
Recent union calls to break up the integrated WFPS model reflected views that weren’t shared by most staff, said Coun. Sherri Rollins, who leads city council’s protection and community services committee.
"Many people don’t give a lick about what politics might be impacting their organization… What they care about is delivering the service for the current model and that’s an integrated model," said Rollins.
She’s confident keeping the fire/paramedic service intact, despite workplace challenges, will ensure the shortest possible response times for patients. Schmidt previously credited the integrated model with allowing a licensed paramedic to reach a patient’s side within 4.5 to six minutes of a call.
"When you’re having a problem and you need us, we get to you faster (with the joint model)," said Rollins.
The consultant hired to produce the culture-shift plan will be expected to prioritize changes, propose techniques to achieve them, develop an education plan and offer a method to measure progress.
The city expects that work to be completed by July 1, 2022.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.