Calgary ambulances in state of 'deep red alert' this past weekend, union says

Calgary EMS is shifting its response to a high volume of 911 calls in the midst of reports from firefighters and paramedics that the system is in crisis.

AHS says it's bringing on more staff, ambulances, in light of increased 911 calls

AHS said it is continuing to see an approximately 30 per cent increase in 911 calls and a general increase in all other call types.  (David Bell/CBC)

Alberta's shortage of ambulance paramedics has reached a new level of desperation, resulting in firefighters waiting up to two hours for EMS to arrive, according to the union representing paramedics and the Alberta Firefighters Association.

The situation has left Mike Parker — president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), the union which represents the province's paramedics — calling the problem a "deep code red."

"Adding the word 'deep red' means there's just nothing left. The crews are on their knees, are devastated," he said.

The lack of ambulances has plagued an overworked and understaffed emergency response system across Alberta for the past decade but worsened significantly since the start of the pandemic, according to Parker.

As a result, Alberta Health Services says a "high volume" of 911 calls has spurred it to bring in additional staff and ambulances — and deploying supervisors — to help emergency medical services respond to demand in the Calgary region. 

In a statement to CBC News on Tuesday, AHS said it is continuing to see an approximately 30 per cent increase in 911 calls and a general increase in all other call types. 

EMS has brought on additional staff and ambulances, is offering overtime to current staff and delaying some non-urgent transfers, AHS said. 

"Anyone who needs EMS care will receive it," the statement said. "We are ensuring that the most critical patients are prioritized for receiving immediate care."

The comments come as firefighters and paramedics are again raising concerns that the system is in crisis. 

Matt Osborne, president of the Alberta Firefighters Association, said EMS has been in crisis for years.

"What we know is that crews are stretched to the breaking point right now," said Osborne. 

"I've been a firefighter for over 20 years, and I've never seen it [like this]."

In February, the provincial government pledged $64 million to deal with challenges in the EMS system brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

AHS said the money will be spent over the next fiscal year and will go toward adding new ambulance crews, including five 24/7 ambulances to Edmonton and Calgary and additional 12-hour crews to Lethbridge and Red Deer.

"We are hearing more and more that there aren't enough ambulances and paramedics, so what that means is that those fire crews are sitting on scene waiting for an ambulance to show up to be able to then get that patient transported to hospital," said Osborne.

"Unfortunately, without the tools to do our job, you're seeing firefighters sit on scene now for we're hearing over an hour, up to two hours."

On Tuesday night alone, Calgary EMS had a backlog of 40 calls to respond to, Parker said. 

"This isn't new. This is a 10-year conversation and it only continues to grow."

Parker said the government needs to focus on developing a new recruitment strategy for paramedics, beginning with education through to job placements. He added that additional support is needed for retaining employees who feel overworked and undervalued. 

"We need people. We don't have any people left to do the jobs."

AHS said that EMS is utilizing a 10-point plan to help create capacity in the system where possible and that new ambulances are also being added in Calgary.

With files from Terri Trembath and Rob Easton


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