Calgary

4 Alberta mayors make last ditch plea to stop EMS 911 consolidation

The mayors of four Alberta municipalities are making a last ditch appeal to the province to stop the centralization of 911 EMS dispatch in their communities.

Municipalities outside the provincial system will be taken over this month

Four municipalities that still control their own EMS dispatch system will have that service taken over by the province this month. (Adam Loria/AHS)

The mayors of four Alberta municipalities are making a last ditch appeal to the province to stop the centralization of 911 EMS dispatch in their communities.

Alberta Health Services announced in August it would consolidate ambulance dispatch centres across the province, bringing municipally controlled operations in Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and the Municipality of Wood Buffalo into the three existing AHS centres.

The changes take place on Jan. 12 for Red Deer and Lethbridge, Jan. 19 for Wood Buffalo and Jan. 26 for Calgary.

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. 

The mayors say they're concerned that the takeover will slow EMS response and that there are insufficient linkages with local fire and police services.

In the past, all four have said their municipal systems provide more timely responses. 

Lethbridge mayor calls on premier to step in

Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman says they've appealed to Premier Jason Kenney to overrule Alberta Health Services and keep the current municipal systems, but there's been no reply. 

"We have a minister who is ignoring the best practice and choosing to impose a system that their bureaucrats have long desired, which is not in the interest of Albertans," he said. 

"So my appeal is to Premier Kenney: overrule your health minister or change the health minister. He's not listening to Albertans."

In a letter to the mayors in October, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said he had reviewed the situations and decided to proceed. 

"My decision is not to overturn AHS's decision," it read.

"This decision is not 'an unknown,' it's the best practice and the standard practice in Alberta, in most other provinces, and in other countries whose health systems are most like ours."

CBC News questions sent by email to AHS were responded to by the health minister's press secretary, Steve Buick, who reiterated that the changes were in keeping with best practices in Alberta and elsewhere. 

He did not answer specific questions. 

Buick says all money saved would be invested in improving ground ambulance services, and the province is working with cities to ensure a smooth transition. 

Sharing calls with police

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who has long opposed the takeover, says AHS has not submitted any information that medical emergency calls that also require a police presence will actually get information to the police. 

He says that may create a situation where a 911 caller will have to call 911 again if they also need the police.

Nenshi says this shows AHS is not ready for the handover, and that it if it's not cancelled, it at least needs to be delayed. He says the city still has not received data that supports the change despite multiple requests. 

"It's a question about people's actual safety, and time and time again Alberta Health Services has shown that they are more concerned with the bureaucratic desire for control over this element of the system than in preserving a system that works and keeps people safe," he said. 

"And for me that is unconscionable."

Buick passed questions about police back to AHS. 

"If police are needed on an EMS call, AHS EMS emergency communications officers notify police directly and immediately. A paramedic, ECO or 911 caller can request police assistance at any time during an event," reads a statement from spokesperson Kerry Williamson.

"Additionally, AHS EMS has a law enforcement response plan that determines what call types require automatic notification of law enforcement."

AHS says move would save $6M

Tara Veer, the mayor of Red Deer, says the consolidated system means fire departments will not automatically be dispatched to an emergency call and that those crews are often the first to arrive, given the strain on the ambulance system. 

She says seconds count in an emergency and "can mean the difference between life and death," and that "Albertans will rue the day" these changes took effect. 

AHS has said the move would save $6 million a year and allow the province to send the nearest available ambulance to a patient, but some first responder groups have expressed concerns it could cause delays in co-ordinated responses. 

With files from Scott Dippel.

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