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Increasing number of Calgary EMS shifts go unfilled as demand intensifies during Stampede

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Calgary paramedics are feeling the intense burnout of higher call volumes during the 2024 Stampede and a lack of available workers has left several shifts unfilled, adding even more pressure to the health-care system.

According to internal documents obtained by CTV News from the Alberta Health Services (AHS) employee portal, there were 15 vacant paramedic shifts in the Calgary Zone on Wednesday, but those numbers increase substantially as the week goes on.

On Thursday and Friday, there are 23 vacant shifts for both days, but on Saturday there are currently 52 unfilled shifts. That means that with two paramedics per ambulance, the shortfall could result in 26 fewer EMS units.

The large void in the roster is prompting some paramedics to speak out against their employer.

One paramedic who agreed to speak with CTV News anonymously, due to concerns about losing their job, said there were already dozens of vacancies last week.

“It just kept getting worse as the week progressed into Stampede, which means we are now seeing trucks from rural communities like Chestermere, Cochrane, Airdrie, High River, Priddis and as far as Banff leaving those areas to take calls in the city,” they said.

“It’s such a gut-wrenching feeling knowing that our city is in a deep red alert, there could be 20 calls pending at a time but no ambulances responding. It’s embarrassing and this profession has been suffering for years now.”

An internal memo sent out by Calgary Zone EMS Operations to its paramedics on June 19 aimed to make them aware that “EMS sees a significant increase in call volume” during the Stampede, but that it was ensuring available resources and processes were in place.

“Additional resources include ambulances, PRUs, VESST coverage and supervisors. Vacancies for those resources have now been posted on Telestaff,” read the memo.

“Calgary Zone EMS has also proactively engaged our Emergency Department partners to discuss off-load optimization and our return to service mandate. Nurse Clinicians and EMS supervisors will be working together closely to clear ambulances as quickly as possible during this time.”

That said, the paramedic source says very few efforts have been taken to ensure shifts are adequately staffed.

“There are tons of new trucks that they have now so the issues are not the physical ambulance, it's that the staff aren't being taken care of,” they said.

“They're not hiring fast enough. The people that they are bringing into the profession are getting here and saying, ‘Well, this is not what I expected.’”

In an emailed statement, AHS said Calgary EMS is experiencing an increase in demand, which is typical for this time of year.

“Significant work is underway to ensure we continue to have appropriate EMS coverage during this busy time,” AHS said.

“This includes working to fill shifts through normal process and with overtime being offered, enlisting paramedics from other areas (such as Mobile Integrated Health and our clinical educators), working with our partners in Emergency Departments to ensure ambulances and paramedics are returned to the community quickly, and ensuring paramedics performing non-frontline work (training, committees, etc.) are assigned to the frontline.

“It is important to note that we add additional resources during periods of high call volume, and when these are not filled it doesn’t accurately reflect the true vacancy rate.”

In a statement, Alberta Health said the government is focused on building emergency medical capacity through various initiatives, “including inter-facility transfer services, adding more ambulances and shifts, budget investments, conducting studies and following recommendations to improve the response times, and by working with other government ministries to recruit and retain more EMS personnel.”

“For events like the Calgary Stampede, Alberta Health Services ensures resources are available in all communities and that large events have the personnel required to keep attendees and workers safe.”

AHS said that despite a 14 per cent increase in call volumes, EMS “continues to respond to citizens in a timely manner with no marked increase in response times for high-priority calls.”

IT added that Calgary EMS has not experienced sustained red alerts during Stampede, to date.

‘This is nothing new’: retired paramedic

Don Sharpe worked as an advanced care paramedic for more than four decades before retiring in 2022, but he says he still receives several calls each week from colleagues about the increased strain on Alberta’s ambulance operators.

“Sadly, this is nothing new. The department has done absolutely nothing to mitigate what the problem is with the number of out-of-service ambulances, and I’m wondering if they’re capable of doing it ever,” he said.

“This is such a busy time, paramedics want to go on holidays just like everybody else but we still need a basic level of coverage. We need the people who have agreed to show up, but the work volume just becomes so enormous.”

The situation, particularly during the Calgary Stampede, has intensified.

According to internal AHS documents obtained by CTV News, there were an average of 63 vacant shifts each day for the 2023 Calgary Stampede.

That translates to an average of 32 ambulances shut down and a total of 3,852 hours of overtime worked over the course of the 10-day event.

Sharpe has unfortunately heard of a few instances as well in which rural ambulances are unavailable for patients who are in critical need of life-saving workers.

“As soon as big cities like Calgary run out of ambulances, they start raiding smaller communities leaving nobody to look after those citizens and that’s wrong," he said.

“So, for instance, somebody in Priddis who would have gotten an ambulance in two or three minutes had to wait 20 minutes and as a result of that long response, they did not make it. This is unfortunately common.”

The devastation and lack of coverage have prompted Sharpe to create a website called wheresmyambulance.com, with the mission of providing citizens with statistics and information about their local ambulance services.

Calgary hospitals on diversion

On top of the issues involving ambulance shift vacancies, two of Calgary’s largest hospitals were also unable to complete surgical procedures on Tuesday night due to staffing issues and had to divert patients to other facilities.

South Health Campus and Rockyview General Hospital both were on diversion and unable to do any urgent or emergency type general surgeries, according to Alberta Medical Association (AMA) President Dr. Paul Parks.

“For example, if a patient with appendicitis was seen and worried that it was going to rupture and needed to go urgently to an operating room, there would be a general surgeon on call at one of those hospitals but they wouldn’t be able to operate,” Parks said.

“They actually then have to call an ambulance, take the time waiting for an ambulance to pull it off the street,  so that ambulance can't see other patients out in the community, and then that patient would have to be transferred to another facility.”

Parks notes that to have two large hospital facilities in a major city both diverting patients is unprecedented and a sign of how “out of control” Alberta’s healthcare system is becoming.

In a statement Wednesday, AHS said it has not decreased surgical volumes.

“In fact, as of today we are currently at 108 per cent of our targeted volume, and are on track to complete our target of 310,000 surgeries this year,” the statement reads.

It added that in this case, one patient was transferred to another Calgary site for surgery.

“Surgical diversions are only activated when all available resources have been utilized and all other mitigations have been exhausted. During a temporary surgical diversion, all patients are triaged and treated, and our medical teams evaluate all patients who may require surgery as they always do,” AHS said.

“When diversion is required, our teams work closely with clinicians and sites to ensure we can continue to provide high-quality care where the resources are best able to meet the patient needs.”

Parks said the AMA gave Alberta Health a government hospital stabilization plan in December of 2023 to notify the province that more funding was needed to support teams in these types of situations.

“This is very demoralizing to know that you can’t take care of these patients in the facilities. This is bread and butter type general surgery. Any major hospital in Alberta that has general surgeons can deal with these cases, but to not have the support staff to safely do it is very demoralizing,” he said.

“Our job is to diagnose and save life and limb, but we're actually spending hours on the phone trying to divert patients to other hospitals.”

Alberta Health Responds

Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange says the province is making investments to boost capacity so that patients in need can get the surgeries they require as quickly as possible.

The following statement was provided to CTV News from the minister’s office on Wednesday:

“Alberta’s government is making investments to boost capacity so Albertans can get the surgeries they need quicker. This includes $618 million to upgrade and improve operating rooms across the province and make sure we stay on pace to perform a record number of surgeries this year,” read the statement

“We need to use all the tools at our disposal to get as many surgeries done as possible. Thousands of Albertans are now getting their publicly funded surgeries at chartered surgical facilities. This is freeing up operating rooms in hospitals to handle more complex surgeries.”

The statement goes on to say that the province is taking additional steps to refocus Alberta’s health care system to “ensure that Albertans have access to more effective care and improve health outcomes.”

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