The union chair representing Toronto paramedics says its health-care system is “on the verge of collapse,” confirming that Saturday night there were no ambulances available to respond to a life-threatening call.

Mike Merriman, the paramedic unit chair for CUPE Local 416, told CTV News Toronto that around 7:40 p.m., a call that was “deemed to be life threatening” came in and there were no units available to attend.

Incidents like this are not rare, Merriman said.

“In fact, I would say it’s frequent,” he said.

“The problem is that the service has been, and services all across the GTA, basically have been inadequately staffed and funded for years. The union's been raising the alarm bells over this, myself personally for years, that in the event of a major crisis or disaster, they're screwed because they have no surge capacity in the system.”

According to Merriman, staffing was an issue prior to the pandemic. However, with the recent surge in infections, there are more personnel who are unable to come to work. Paramedics are also volunteering less for overtime due to burnout.

More people are also calling ambulances if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and want to go to the hospital, Merriman added.

“Our members could barely handle the calls before COVID. And now when to COVID, they can't keep up and they're exhausted,” he said. “The systems are a mess. I would say it is on the verge of collapse, at least EMS services.”

A spokesperson for the City of Toronto said that at any moment in time all ambulances may be tied up on a call or in hospital.

“This is not an uncommon occurrence,” Brad Ross said in a statement. “During busier periods, there will be delays in responding to low priority calls while paramedics respond to higher priority calls due to absences related to COVID-19.”

“There remains significant pressure in hospitals related to COVID-19 absences resulting in paramedics being delayed with off-loading patients. This issue is unfortunately common right now around the world.”

Merriman said that it would be beneficial for paramedics in managerial positions to be deployed to the field to help supplement staff.

“We don't need management pushing pencils in ivory towers right now, we need paramedics out on the road.”

Paramedic services across the GTA have expressed concerns about a shortage of emergency personnel as COVID-19 cases in the province increase exponentially. Earlier this week, the president and CEO of William Osler Health System urged residents who need non-urgent medical assistance to bring themselves to the hospital instead of tying up emergency lines.

“We will encourage people that don't need an ambulance and can be ambulatory to drive themselves to the hospital. But if you have something such as chest pain or stroke symptoms or something more significant, it's better to wait in one place and have the paramedics get to you,” Mohammad said

There is about a 12.7 per cent absence rate across all critical and essential services in Toronto due to the pandemic.

With files from CTV News Toronto's Sean Leathong