'People will die,' Nenshi warns, as mayors pan Alberta's plan to merge ambulance dispatch

Mayors of four Alberta municipalities say they were not consulted about Alberta Health Service's decision to bring their ambulance dispatch centres under provincial control, and are calling on the health minister to overrule the move. 

AHS says decision will save money, and 911 callers won't notice the difference

From left: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman, Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer and Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott. The four mayors have expressed their opposition to EMS dispatch being consolidated by the province. (CBC)

Mayors of four Alberta municipalities say they were not consulted about Alberta Health Service's decision to bring their ambulance dispatch centres under provincial control, and are calling on the health minister to overrule the move. 

"People will die, no money will be saved, and fundamentally Alberta Health Services is trying to go ahead with this yet again," Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Wednesday.

"This is a terrible idea. It was done without consultation."

Nenshi spoke during a joint news conference with Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer, Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman and Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott. 

Alberta Health Services announced Tuesday it is consolidating ambulance dispatch centres across the province, bringing municipally controlled sites in Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and the Municipality of Wood Buffalo into three existing AHS centres.

Those AHS centres have been providing dispatch services to other Alberta municipalities like Edmonton, Medicine Hat and Grande Prairie since 2009. 

Fire, police and other first responders will continue to be dispatched by municipalities. 

We were blindsided.- Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman- Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman

The move will allow the province to send the nearest available ambulance to a patient, but some first responder groups, like the union representing Calgary firefighters, have expressed concerns it could cause delays in co-ordinated responses. 

"There is absolutely no doubt the AHS model will cause delays," said Scott.

Nenshi said at least four previous provincial health ministers have considered making the change but all concluded that it didn't make sense. 

The mayors said that, in their cities, fire services arrive first in up to half of all 911 calls. They said the deintegration of services would fracture that response model and force some callers to repeat their stories. 

The province said the transition will take six months and is expected to annually save more than $6 million — a number the municipalities questioned, as they argued their costs will actually increase. 

"Callers will know no difference in what happens today versus what will happen after the transition," said AHS chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck on Wednesday. 

He said there is no evidence response times will slow, and said there will be no additional step in the process, just that callers will be sent through to a provincial EMS dispatcher instead of a municipal one. 

Sandbeck also said there should be no issue with provincial dispatchers having a lack of knowledge of local landmarks because they have what he described as a robust and searchable mapping system at their fingertips. 

The move was one recommendation made under a comprehensive review of AHS done by contractor Ernst and Young. 

"The Ernst and Young report, as far as I know, did not speak to a single person actually working in the system," Nenshi said. 

The mayors also said they took issue with a lack of consultation with AHS.

Veer said the parties were scheduled to meet in July but the meeting was cancelled. She said officials received notice just minutes before the decision was made public.

"We were blindsided," said Spearman.

Sandbeck said there has been ongoing consultation about the idea over the past decade. 

The four mayors have sent a letter to the health minister and the premier outlining their concerns. 

Steve Buick, press secretary for the health minister, said in an email that AHS already handles dispatch for 60 per cent of Alberta's communities and that EMS response times are slightly lower in Edmonton, which is already handled provincially, than in Calgary.

"The [$6 million per year] saved through this common-sense change will be invested right back into front-line health care," he said.

AHS will hire 25 new emergency communications officers to make up for the increased call volume and said current municipal employees will be encouraged to apply for those positions. 

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