Alberta takes ambulance dispatch from cities after years-long dispute with Calgary

Alberta Health Services is consolidating ambulance dispatch services across the province, pulling Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and Wood Buffalo into the three existing EMS dispatch centres. 

Long-running disagreement over who should handle dispatch duties takes another turn

Darren Sandbeck, chief paramedic and senior provincial director with Alberta Health Services EMS, announced the change in dispatch protocol via a Zoom press conference on Aug. 4, 2020. (Screenshot)

Alberta Health Services is consolidating ambulance dispatch services across the province, pulling Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and Wood Buffalo into the three existing EMS dispatch centres. 

Those four municipalities have been running their own operations separate from the provincial dispatch centres established in 2009. 

This move will transition those four into the broader provincial dispatch network over the next six months. AHS estimates that it will save more than $6 million annually, but stressed the financial bottom line didn't drive the decision. 

Only EMS 911 dispatch services are affected, leaving local fire, police and other first responders under the purview of municipal dispatch teams. The government says the provincial EMS system will allow for better coordination of resources and improve patient care through more efficient services.

The change would allow EMS dispatch to send the nearest available ambulance to a patient, rather than having to navigate geographical or jurisdictional boundaries.

The Lethbridge firefighter-paramedics union described the move as "a huge blow to our city" in a tweet thread posted Tuesday afternoon.

"The ability for ambulance crews to request assistance from fire / police will be delayed," the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 237 posted from its Twitter account.

"This is a huge safety concern for our first responders. When they request help they need it and a delay is not appropriate."

The Calgary firefighters union also expressed concerns. 

"At a time when first responders are already stretched to the limits, this move by AHS will put the lives of Calgarians at further risk," the Calgary Firefighters Association said on Twitter.

"We rely on our EMS partners to assist us day and night on everything from car crashes to fires to drownings. Seconds matter during emergencies, and anything that increases response times is both callous and incredibly irresponsible. We can't in good faith stay quiet about this decision."

AHS said consolidating the dispatch services was a recommendation made by a third-party review of its operations, released at the beginning of the year, aiming to reduce costs and improve performance. 

AHS insisted Tuesday that people who call 911 will not notice any changes or hiccups in service. The EMS team will be hiring 25 new officers to offset the increase in call volumes caused by adding those four areas to the dispatch zone. 

"The consolidation is the right decision for any Albertan needing emergency medical care," said Dr. Verna Yiu, AHS president and CEO. "This will improve care and ensure we are being fiscally responsible." 

It's not the first time efforts have been made to transition to a pan-Alberta model. The question of ambulance dispatches was a huge point of contention between Calgary and the province just a short time ago.

Years of wrangling in Calgary

After years of wrangling, the two signed an agreement in 2016 that allowed Calgary to maintain control of its dispatch, while AHS would handle calls in the surrounding areas.

This new announcement from AHS appears to reclaim that control from Calgary.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi had expressed concern with that provincial model when it was first floated several years ago, saying the proposal wouldn't address the specific EMS needs of the city.

The issue was also cited among the reasons for the 2015 resignation of former AHS CEO Vickie Kaminski, who said she quit in part because of political interference from the then-NDP government over the Calgary dispatch arrangement. Nenshi disputed the version of events Kaminski outlined in that letter.

During that dispute, the Calgary and District Labour Council also said it was concerned having a province-wide dispatch would slow response times. 

AHS denies that will be the case now. 

"You may hear comments in the coming days about this transition increasing response times ... this is not true," Darren Sandbeck, chief paramedic and provincial director at AHS EMS, said Tuesday. 

"This consolidation changes nothing with respect to the 911 call workflows that exist today."

A spokesperson for Nenshi said the mayor wasn't immediately available to comment on the change but would have a response on Wednesday.

With files from the CBC's Robson Fletcher and Sarah Rieger


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