Albertans left 'unprotected' by stretched ambulance fleet, paramedics union says

Documents the Health Sciences Association of Alberta obtained through a freedom of information request show demand is up almost 20 per cent since 2012-2013, but there's only 3.4 per cent more paramedics.

Documents obtained through freedom of information show budgets and staffing haven't kept pace with demand

Mike Parker, the president of the HSAA, says funding and staffing levels have not kept pace with demand in Alberta's ambulance system. (Colin Hall/CBC)

The union representing Alberta's paramedics says the province's ambulance system is stretched to its breaking point.

Documents it obtained through a freedom of information request show demand is up almost 20 per cent since 2012-2013, but there's only 3.4 per cent more paramedics. 

Only 10 ambulances have been added to the fleet in that time. 

"I'll be honest with you, where we sit, if you want to put a number there, we're shy about 50 paramedic units, so 50 ambulances shy, provincewide today, and growing," said Mike Parker, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA). 

"There is nothing new with what we're saying. This has been going on for 10 years plus. When Alberta health Services took over, there was no true assessment of where we were at and who was under-resourcing their communities at that time. Today, we have maintained those low service levels and, again, growth of almost 20 per cent is taking its toll."

Snowstorm stressed system

Parker points to a recent snowstorm in Calgary, which resulted in a code red, meaning there were no ambulances available in the city. 

"I guess what we're looking at here is that snow is a major event in Alberta, and now because of snow we can't meet our response needs," he said. 

"We can't forecast an earthquake, we can't forecast an airplane crash, we can't forecast a terrorist attack. So can we respond in an appropriate amount of time to those incidents? My opinion is no."

According to the HSAA, Edmonton had no available ambulances when a man plowed into pedestrians and stabbed a police officer in an apparent terror attack last September. 

AHS response

Parker says his members are overworked and overstressed, racing from one call to the next without stop. 

Darren Sandbeck, the chief paramedic for Alberta Health Services, says he agrees the system needs more resources, but insists they are able to deal with any situation that might arise. 

"Generally, a large-scale event is contained to one area or to a smaller area, where we see weather events that tend to cover a large piece of geography. So the challenges become different," he said of the recent code red in Calgary. 

"Where in a large scale event we're able to focus our resources into a tighter area and be able to provide that service."

Rural units in the city

Parker says another issue affecting his members is the practice of pulling rural units into the cities in order to deal with shortfalls. 

"So ... in Calgary, you'll see Strathmore being drawn in, you'll see units from Airdrie being drawn in, High River being drawn in. And what does that leave left behind in those communities? They are unprotected, they have no available ambulance and then they're going to turn around and ship a unit that's caught in Calgary, lights and sirens, back out to those communities when a call comes in," he said. 

Sandbeck said the system is "dynamic" and resources are moved around to deal with evolving situations. He said if there are no ambulances available in rural areas, local fire departments can step in to provide first response medical care. 

About the Author

Drew Anderson

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson.