Calgary EMS had no ambulances available more than 3,500 times this past year

Calgary's EMS system had 470 per cent more red alerts — or periods when no ambulances were available — than Edmonton did last year. 

AHS says increase in calls unprecedented, but critics say crisis mounting for years

Calgary's EMS system had thousands of instances when no ambulances were available during the past year. (CBC)

Calgary's EMS system had 470 per cent more red alerts — or periods when no ambulances were available — than Edmonton did this past year. 

Calgary reported 3,569 red alerts between June 2020 and May 2021, while Edmonton reported just 626 red alerts over the same period, according to documents obtained through a freedom of information request by the Alberta NDP.

Alberta Health Services confirmed to CBC News that the numbers were accurate. 

Red alerts in Calgary have increased by 289 per cent this year, compared with 2018. 

Calgary EMS experienced red alerts on average 290 times each month from June to  May, compared to an average of 48 in Edmonton during the same time period. 

The entire health-care system is being put into that turmoil now.-Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents EMS crews in the province, said the issue has been escalating in severity for years. 

'What we're seeing here, time and again, is the call volume increases, the population increases, and zero dollars being added to maintain resource levels to protect the people of this province," Parker said. 

Parker said the UCP government has cut funding in recent years, a pattern he's seen impact other parts of the health-care system as well.

On Friday, physicians representing 450 emergency room doctors penned a letter to AHS expressing "confusion and alarm" over bed closures. They called for immediate action to address overwhelmed and understaffed emergency rooms.

AHS has invoked emergency work rules, which could force nurses to work mandatory overtime and cancel holidays. 

"You're always falling behind. The entire health-care system is being put into that turmoil now," Parker said. 

AHS said in an emailed statement that it's seeing an unprecedented increase in calls, including those related to COVID-19, heat and wildfire smoke, opioid use and people returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity. 

"Albertans can be assured that when someone calls 911 for an ambulance, EMS will always respond," the statement read.

AHS said code reds usually last only up to a few minutes, and that EMS can still respond during a code red by: 

  • Calling in units from nearby communities.
  • Deferring non-urgent transfers.
  • Bringing in additional staff or deploying single paramedic units.
  • Offering overtime when casual staff aren't available. 

Parker said drawing in ambulances from other communities leaves their residents exposed. 

Calgary paramedics put in more than 56,000 hours of overtime in 2019, according to documents obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request. 

AHS said it has increased paramedics since then, to a total of 2,891, up by 232 from 2019. AHS also said EMS is working with emergency departments to reduce the time crews spend waiting with patients, in order to return them to the street more quickly. 

NDP health critic David Shepherd said the numbers paint a picture of a mounting crisis. 

"Really what we have here are the results of, I think, this government's unfortunate ideology, which is undermining and destabilizing the broader ecosystem of our health care … and Albertans are paying the price," he said.

The Opposition is calling on the government to increase COVID-19 restrictions, to lessen the number of calls coming in as cases and hospitalizations rise and to fund increased staffing for nurses, ERs and EMS. 

Parker said many paramedics are dealing with back-to-back calls on shifts as long as 14 hours, leaving them feeling disrespected and exhausted.

"What they've created here is … a very toxic workplace. And in that case, no one's going to stick around," he said. "You know, that's the sad reality of what they're doing. They're destroying the profession."

With files from Colleen Underwood and Drew Anderson.