Calgary

Alberta's ambulance response times have worsened from the start of the pandemic, data shows

Documents obtained by CBC News show Alberta’s ambulance performance and response times have significantly worsened in the last year.

'What this data shows is that these aren't just anecdotes,' health policy professor says

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

Documents obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request show Alberta's ambulance performance and response times have significantly worsened since the start of the pandemic.

Alberta's paramedics have been sounding the alarm about the province's emergency medical services (EMS) for months. 

"What this data shows is that these aren't just anecdotes," says Lorian Hardcastle who studies health policy and law at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine. "These aren't just the odd case slipping through the cracks. It seems to be a more persistent and widespread problem."

The data show ambulance red alerts — when no ambulances are available for new calls —  increased from an average of 57 per month in 2019 to a peak of nearly 558 in September 2020. The average for 2021 was close to 200 red alerts per month.


Edmonton initially faired better with an increase from an average of 13 to 26 red alerts per month, but made up the difference in 2021 with an average higher than Calgary at 212 red alerts per month.

The provincial budget, which came out Thursday, pledged $64 million to deal with some of the new challenges in the EMS system brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Alberta Health director of communications and public engagement Chris Bourdeau, said the impetus to the funding was to address challenges brought on by a 30 per cent increase in demand on emergency services in the province.

"Like other areas of the health-care system, EMS is experiencing unprecedented demand due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and people returning to regular levels of activity," he wrote.

The goal, according to Bourdeau, is to address shortages in staff due to illness, fatigue and stress.

Specifically, the 12.2 per cent increase in funding will add more ground and air ambulance crew and staff while increasing capacity for priority projects, including ground ambulance contracts, "supporting Integrated Operations Centres and Interfacility Transports projects."

It will also support what he called an "AHS hours of work initiative" directed toward crew fatigue. More details on specifics will come later as a strategic plan is developed, he said.

911 disconnects skyrocket

The data also show 911 dispatchers had to hang up on nearly 700 calls in July 2021 — an astronomical increase over the start of that year, which saw just 19 disconnects in January.

911 urgent disconnects typically happen when the volume of calls outpace the ability of dispatchers to respond and they need to hang up on less urgent calls in order to answer incoming calls.


At the start of 2021, Alberta Health Services centralized 911 dispatch into three centres that were previously run by municipalities.

The mayors of Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and the Municipality of Wood Buffalo said at the time that it would negatively impact 911 service.

When asked whether the budget would address issues with 911 dispatch, the press secretary for the Minister of Municipal Affairs Scott Johnston said in an emailed statement that the government plans to add an additional $40 million to 911 dispatch centres in the coming fiscal year.

What's not clear is whether the amalgamation led to the increase in 911 disconnects, according to Hardcastle.

She says the government first and foremost needs to address staff burnout and fix its relationship with healthcare workers. Money can only fix part of the problem.

"[The government] really needs to turn that around and fix its relationship with healthcare workers, if it expects to recruit people...and I think that that extends to to first responders."

"There's not only the money piece, but there's the respect piece."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Easton

Data Journalist

Rob Easton is a data journalist for CBC News in Calgary. His previous beats include data visualization and graphics, LGBT2SI+ and refugee stories. He has also directed documentaries, reality TV and story produced for CBC Radio.

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