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Calgary EMS red alerts for April increased tenfold in three years

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New data from Alberta Health Services quarterly report, obtained by a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) shows that the number of red alerts in Calgary for the month of April were 10 times higher than three years prior.

In April 2019, 41 red alerts were noted with a total time of one hour for the entire month that an ambulance was not available.

Most recently, that exploded to 618 red alerts totalling nearly 11 hours where an ambulance was not available.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley said the UCP government need to offer full-time positions to paramedics.

“What these documents show, with a tenfold increase is that the time to act has passed,” she said.

“The UCP must commit to retaining the paramedics that we currently have, by guaranteeing that they can get off shift on time. They need to offer every paramedic a permanent full-time contract, instead of these exploitive, 89 day contracts that offer no security, no benefits, not even sick days.”

Notley said it's hard to retain paramedics in this province under the UCP.

“Telling these people that they had to take pay cuts, and just recently finally signed off on deals that had 0 per cent increases throughout the term of the pandemic,” said Notley.

“It's hardly a surprise that folks are going to question whether this is a line of work that they want to be in.”

In July, the Alberta government announced nine new ambulances for the province including four on Calgary streets that are currently operating, including with new staff.

AHS implemented a 90 second dispatch time for the first ambulance to respond.

Since the end of last year, the documents show that response times in life-threatening instances are around seven to eight minutes, slightly higher than AHS’s target.

AHS RESPONDS

Late Wednesday afternoon, Alberta Health Services sent CTV News the following statement:

"EMS has been seeing (an) increase in emergency calls due to several combined factors, and all call types have increased.

"Province-wide overall EMS 911 call volume in 2022 to date is nearly 30 per cent higher than 2018-19.

"This increase in calls includes effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid concerns, and emergency calls related to people returning to regular levels of activity.

"With warmer weather comes additional calls for things such as heatstroke, sprains and bicycle injuries, and a resurgence in illnesses that were more common before the pandemic, which are also contributing to the rise in emergency medical calls.

"Many patients opted to delay seeking care earlier in the pandemic and as a result, the healthcare system is now also seeing sicker patients.

"Staff illness and fatigue are also contributing to challenges in the EMS system.

"This is not unique to Alberta – EMS is under similar pressure in healthcare jurisdictions across Canada.

"The EMS budget has been increased by $64 million or 12 per cent this year, and we’re using the increased budget to add staff as fast as possible.

"There are 250 more paramedics working today than two years ago, and AHS is constantly adding staff and increasing capacity. But like other provinces, we continue to be challenged by the increase in 911 calls and the impact of the pandemic on the workforce and the health system overall.

"Code reds are an internal process tool, and they’ve increased in parallel with other indicators of pressure on the system. (Note, these are only tracked in Edmonton and Calgary.)

"The key factor in EMS red alerts remains the amount of time EMS crews must remain in hospital emergency departments waiting to safely transfer care.

"AHS continues to work with hospitals, EMS and Alberta Health to collaborate on the best ways to release EMS crews back to service sooner so the instances of red alerts can be reduced.

"EMS monitors ambulance availability in real time and ensures resources are available to respond to emergencies. System adjustments are made minute by minute to make the best use of the existing resources.

"The measure of how long it takes us to reach a sick or injured patient is response time, posted on our website. In Calgary in June, EMS responded to critical calls in about nine minutes at median (50 per cent of calls) and 18 minutes at 90th percentile, compared to our targets of eight minutes (median) and 12 minutes.

"Response times have increased and they’re above our targets, but EMS continues to work hard to reach people who need them as fast as possible.

"We’ll keep adding resources to EMS and across the system until we get response times back within our targets, where they were until last summer when calls surged.

"EMS is building new capacity, innovating to free ambulances up for urgent care needs and ensuring our EMS workforce is robust and well supported. This work is guided by the EMS 10-Point Plan.

"Over the next several months both Calgary Zone and Edmonton Zone EMS Operations will continue to add new capacity.

"These resources will help address pressure in the province’s largest and busiest Zones and will also have a positive ripple effect on neighboring areas, allowing us to help maintain local ambulances in the areas where they are based.

"Nine new ambulances have already been added in June; four in Calgary, alongside additional shifts in Okotoks and Chestermere, plus five new ambulances in Edmonton.

"Ten new ambulances are being added in September, 2022.

"New staff have also been hired to staff these new ambulances. In May and June, EMS posted several new positions, and has made progress on hiring:

"Of 40 new Primary Care Paramedics (PCP) positions announced earlier this year, 12 of those roles in Calgary and 20 in Edmonton have been filled. The hiring process is ongoing.

"Of 16 new Emergency Medical Responders (EMR), responsible for Inter-Facility Transfers, three have been hired in Calgary so far and seven in Edmonton.

"40 temporary Rover Positions in Calgary and Edmonton, and 10 each in North Zone, Central Zone and South Zone have also already been extended until March, 2023.

"Additional staffing resources will continue to be added later this year:

•       Four new Advanced Care Paramedics (ACPs) and four new PCPs specifically allotted for Suburban-Rural coverage in the Calgary Zone (two ACP and 2 PCP in both Okotoks and Chestermere) will be added in August, and;

•       40 additional new PCPs will be added in September, 20 each in Calgary and Edmonton, and the hiring process is already underway for these jobs."

In a Wednesday tweet, the Calgary Firefighters Association said when there are no ambulances available, Calgary firefighters are filling the gap.

"This situation can't continue."

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