Cities file complaint with Alberta ombudsman over consolidated ambulance dispatch

Four cities across Alberta have jointly filed a complaint with the province's ombudsman over the UCP government's decision to allow Alberta Health Services to consolidate regional ambulance dispatch.

Mayors of Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and R.M. of Wood Buffalo say move has hurt patient care

Mayors of four Alberta municipalities have jointly filed a complaint to the province's ombudsman over the decision to consolidate their EMS dispatch services. (David Bell/CBC)

Four cities across Alberta have jointly filed a complaint with the province's ombudsman over the UCP government's decision to allow Alberta Health Services to consolidate regional ambulance dispatch.

"It is unacceptable that we continue to risk people's lives," said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in an emailed release on Wednesday.

"We've seen the data and listened to those on the frontline and we know that this dispatch system cannot meet the needs of patients in our cities. We hope that the Alberta ombudsman will consider the severity of the situation and convince our provincial government to make the right decision."

The four mayors have spoken out against consolidation since July 2020. 

But despite their concerns, Alberta Health Services (AHS) officially brought municipally controlled operations in Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo into the three existing AHS centres in January 2021.

The move was one of multiple recommendations made during a review of AHS by external consultants Ernst & Young, which laid the stage for several cost cutting measures including possible privatization of some health services. 

AHS had said the consolidation would save millions each year and that patients wouldn't notice the difference.

But first responder groups, like the union representing Calgary firefighters, had expressed concerns that consolidation would cause delays in coordinated responses.

Prior to the consolidation, firefighters were often first on scene in cities like Calgary and Red Deer as calls came in and were coordinated between EMS, fire and police.

"Our fire trucks would often arrive well in advance of the ambulance, and that is an option that's no longer available to us," said Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer in an interview.

Patient outcomes have suffered, mayors say

Since the centres were consolidated, the mayors of the four municipalities say there have been significant issues with service delivery that have hurt health and safety outcomes of patients in their regions — and that some delays were reported within the first day of the changeover.

"Seconds count in life and death circumstances … we continue to see the consequences of consolidated dispatch on the ground, and we have an ethical imperative to every Albertan to continue to pursue every avenue possible," said Veer.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has previously estimated that emergency services staff had to intervene in one in five calls during the first few weeks to prevent AHS caused delays, and that in some instances patients were transferred multiple times or first-responders were sent to the wrong location. 

In another incident, the mayors said that AHS experienced a "code red" situation where no ambulances were available, but the local dispatch centre was not notified — if it had, fire crews could have been mobilized to assist if needed. 

"Since the province forced a consolidated dispatch system on our communities, we have witnessed the deterioration of ambulance dispatch," said Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott.

"Our communities have tried every avenue to communicate with the government that this system is flawed and to strongly dispute the effectiveness of it, but our calls for a third party review remain unanswered," said Veer.

"We will not be giving up the fight for what we know is in the best interest of patient safety."

Former Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in October 2020 that he had reviewed the situation and allowed AHS to proceed. 

Alberta's ombudsman Marianne Ryan provides oversight of provincial government agencies, municipalities and other authorities and makes recommendations to resolve issues.

CBC has reached out to the ombudsman's office to confirm if it will investigate the complaint.

AHS said in a statement earlier this month that it was aware a complaint was being filed.

"Dispatch services were successfully consolidated seven months ago, and the system continues to perform as expected," read a statement attributed to the health authority in early October.

With files from Julie Debeljak and Joel Dryden


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