A 'short-sighted' decision: Alberta first responders disappointed in consolidation of 911 dispatch services
Officials with the province's emergency services say changes to 911 dispatch services could result in negative outcomes (file)
CALGARY -- Calgary ambulances will now be dispatched by a provincially-run call centre instead of locally, but new changes to the system are not sitting well with first responders.
On Tuesday, Alberta Health Services (AHS) announced that 911 calls handled by four municipally-run, contracted satellite dispatch sites in Calgary, Lethbridge Red Deer and Wood Buffalo would now be transitioned to one of three existing AHS dispatch centres.
AHS had been running a dispatch system for the rest of the province since 2009.
Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is disappointed in the transition for Calgary EMS and joined mayors from other affected cities on Wednesday to speak out against the changes. He said the new system will slow response times and introduce another step in the dispatching of EMS services to medical emergencies.
"In the system we have right now, it allows you to get the help you need quickly and efficiently. The system that is being proposed requires you to tell your story again, and again, and maybe again, it means it will take longer for you to get help and it won't save any money.
"This was a bad idea in 2009," Nenshi said. "It was a bad idea in 2011, it was a bad idea in 2013, it was a bad idea in 2016 - and nothing has changed."
Meanwhile, the Alberta Firefighters’ Association (AFA) is calling the province’s decision "short sighted" and will result in negative patient outcomes.
"You can only cut so many costs and services before a life is lost," said AFA president Brad Readman.
"This consolidation will result in longer wait times for an EMS crew to arrive at the location of a person in need of medical attention and job losses across the province. These reckless decisions that are being made without consultations from the front line first responders that they affect need to stop."
Alberta’s Health Minister Tyler Shandro disagreed., saying the changes will be seamless as the transition takes places over the next six months, adding that the province will save $6 million annually.
"The adoption of this recommendation from the EY AHS Review is a further evolution of Alberta’s promise to put patients first," Shandro said. "The provincial EMS dispatch system allows for better coordination of all EMS resources, including ground ambulances and air resources and reliable response times."
One of the prime examples the UCP government pointed to was last month’s ice fields bus rollover near Jasper when dispatchers sent resources from Calgary and Edmonton.
AHS chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck said patient care in that situation is improved by strong coordination and teamwork.
"The ice fields incident required 18 ground ambulances, three helicopters and seven airplanes," he said. "At the same time this was going on, two other multiple-patient collisions occurred — one south of Edmonton and the other west of Edmonton on Highway 16. These events required additional triage from EMS and helicopter resources by the transport and by our dispatch teams."
The province’s transition affects 911 dispatch services only. Firefighters and police will still be dispatched by municipalities.
To ensure resources are in place to meet the increased call volume to the EMS communication centres, AHS will hire 25 new emergency communication officers. Current municipal employees will be encouraged to apply for those new roles.
For Readman, the problem isn't just dispatchers.
"The root of the problem is there is not enough ambulances on the streets in the big cities," he said, "and its just going to make it worse.
"There's going to be delays," he added. "We're already seeing delays in dispatching of fire trucks."
With files from Tyson Fedor