Calgary

New ambulances won't fix bigger problems, says paramedics' union

Nine new ambulances are on the streets of Calgary and Edmonton, but more work still has to be done to address wider staffing issues, say paramedics.

Staffing shortages continue to strain emergency services in Alberta

A paramedic stands beside an ambulance at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary in January 2022. (Ose Irete/CBC)

The addition of more ambulances to Alberta's biggest cities is being derided by the union representing paramedics, pointing instead to remaining gaps in the system.

"This is a non-announcement," said Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.

"Having a bunch of shiny new ambulances sounds fantastic, but you need paramedics in them. And this is the biggest piece we're facing here is that we have struggled to have enough people to do the work for a long time."

Parker said Alberta Health Services is not doing enough to fix what he called a "toxic work environment" and this is also forcing staff to leave the job.

Ahead of announcing the addition of nine ambulances — five in Edmonton and four in Calgary — AHS also carried out a search for new paramedics.

While gains have been made in filling vacancies, there are still over a dozen open postings for advanced care paramedics and emergency medical responders.

"We will bring additional resources on again in the September timeframe in both Calgary and Edmonton," said AHS chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck.

"Hiring continues. We have a good number of recruits coming into the system that are being hired and being prepared to go to the street."

WATCH | Patients in Alberta are feeling the strain of health-care staffing shortages:

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Staffing shortages have led to long wait times for patients in Alberta hospitals over the past few weeks, and some doctors say these are signs of a health-care system under strain. The CBC’s Julia Wong spoke to one family about their harrowing ordeal at the Red Deer hospital.

In a statement, Health Minister Jason Copping said these hiring efforts are a priority.

"Our health-care system remains under strain, especially in Edmonton and Calgary, and we continue to see increased pressure on EMS and our emergency departments in particular. We are adding resources and staff across the system, and this will help to ensure Albertans continue to get the care they need."

Absences continue to grow

However, Parker said hiring is also a problem because of issues trying to attract candidates over the contentious relationship with the province. There are also significant problems with absences among existing staff, with hundreds of paramedics off every week.

"What we see today is an increased workload that causes an increased mental health stress on our folks. We have a predatory employer in this province, and people are exiting the industry. They are not taking sick, they are walking away from the career," Parker said.

Sandbeck also acknowledged that absences are an issue as they also see a 30 per cent increase in call volume over the past 15 months

"We continue to see a high rate of sick time utilization, we continue to see a high rate of what we call longer-term book-offs, for folks that require additional time off to rest and recover."

Even so, he ensured a proper amount of staff for the new ambulances and hoped to improve service levels.

Parker is adamant the announcement of more ambulances as part of an ongoing 10-point plan from EMS is merely a distraction. He said the goal is to pull focus away from the root cause of delays that leave some Albertans waiting over an hour for transport to hospital or, such as in a recent case in Calgary, force other emergency crews to take patients instead.

"This is an announcement that they're using every time they get in trouble with something in the media, and they just defer back to 'we're still getting nine trucks.' We've heard this for months now."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ross

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ross is a reporter with CBC Calgary. You can reach him at tom.ross@cbc.ca.

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