Lack of emergency service being felt in southern Alberta

Alberta Health Services says it is aware a complaint has been made to the Alberta ombudsman regarding dispatch services in the province.

Consolidation of ambulance dispatch sparks complaint to provincial ombudsman

Trevor Wiper, 85, grew up in Manchester, England, before moving to Canada. He now lives in the village of Warner, Alta., and neighbours in the community have assisted him in recent months when his health faced significant challenges. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Trevor Wiper, 85, said he was initially lured to Canada by a "pretty Quebec lass."

"I was very impressed with Canada," said Wiper, who hails originally from Manchester, England. "I came to Alberta because the pension was bigger."

As a self-described loner, Wiper said he was eventually drawn to the quiet village of Warner, Alta., which is approximately 65 kilometres south of Lethbridge.

"There's not a lot of noise and things going on that can be aggravating, or people that are not polite," he said.

Before coming to Warner, Wiper never really had many issues when it came to his health — he was extremely active, hiking the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean single-handedly.

The village of Warner, Alta., is approximately 65 kilometres south of Lethbridge. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

But a few months ago, Wiper was walking around the village and suddenly felt weak. He visited his doctor, who found cancer in both lungs.

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Another day, out walking again, Wiper collapsed. A passerby in a truck stopped and put Wiper in his vehicle, bringing him to his friend Eric Burns's house, who drove him to the hospital.

On a separate occasion, Burns found Wiper shaking in his trailer.

"I was scared," Burns said. "He was lying in bed shaking, and he couldn't stop shaking. So we tried to administer some health ourselves.

"Checked for fever and decided there's no point in calling an ambulance."

Burns gave Wiper water and got him warm. Within an hour, he was able to speak properly again.

The incidents highlighted what's become common knowledge among residents in the village of under 500 residents: If you need to get to the hospital, you find someone to drive you there.

"Everybody chips in and helps one another if they need it," Burns said. "That's the nice thing about a small village. But I wish we had what we used to have."

'Almost like going blindfold'

Jon Hood, the CAO of Warner and the nearby town of Milk River, said challenges in the rural communities in southern Alberta started a number of years ago, when local ambulances operated by volunteers were taken over by Alberta Health Services (AHS).

"In their intelligence, the government decided to amalgamate the service and take over the service," he said. "So we went from five viable ambulance services to two … so, quite a reduction for an area quite this size."

Jon Hood, the CAO for the Village of Warner and the nearby Town of Milk River, says health-care demands in rural communities are being handled by volunteer firefighters. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

The result of that, Hood said, is that volunteer fire departments are now finding themselves responding to medical calls when ambulances are 45 minutes to an hour away.

"I know first-hand, because I've done it. The first few deaths you go through, they have quite an effect on you," he said.

Those challenges have been compounded by the provincial government's August 2020 decision to consolidate ambulance dispatch centres across Alberta, Hood said.

Prior to the change, Hood said, dispatch came out of Lethbridge, meaning it was understood who was on the way — be that Milk River, Raymond or Coaldale.

'We could switch over our channels, communicate with them, tell them what we have. Now they've removed the dispatch from us, so they're on a different system," he said.

"We don't know what we're encountering, we don't know where the ambulance is, we don't know how long we have to provide services, whether it's life support or whatever it is, until they arrive.

"It's almost like going blindfold, driving your car down the highway with one eye closed."

Complaint filed with ombudsman

Earlier this week, the City of Lethbridge said it was joining with Red Deer, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Calgary in filing a complaint to the provincial ombudsman regarding the consolidation.

Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said a lack of transparency from AHS prompted the complaint.

"We believe it's been a mistake, it does need to be reviewed and we would like an independent look at the data because AHS won't share that with us and they had intended to do that," Spearman said. 

"So, that process isn't working for us and we believe our cities are not being well served. So now all four cities have decided to participate together … in making a joint application to the Alberta ombudsman for a review."

Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman says everyone understands COVID-19 is a priority in health-care, but the city wants to make sure it is simultaneously keeping EMS dispatch and ambulance response on the radar. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

AHS said it was aware a complaint had been made to the Alberta ombudsman regarding dispatch services, adding it had not yet been provided with a copy of any complaint.

"Dispatch services were successfully consolidated seven months ago, and the system continues to perform as expected," reads a statement attributed to the health authority.

Spearman said residents have raised issues about service level issues on an anecdotal basis, while fire chiefs in each city have tracked "hundreds" of service level issues.

"It's no secret that the health system is under pressure everywhere, and the ambulance system is one component of it," he said. 

"At one time we used to say, don't drive yourself to the hospital, the ambulance will be there soon. And now we question that advice."

Alberta Health Services says it is aware of 'no serious concerns' regarding the provincial dispatch process related to consolidation of services. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

AHS EMS said it was aware of "no serious concerns" regarding the provincial dispatch process that related to consolidation of services.

"EMS has investigated all previous concerns brought forward by the municipalities," reads the statement.

AHS said it was committed to following processes established by the minister of health, including a working group on dispatch with the municipalities as members, as "the best way to resolve any concerns."

When the health authority originally announced the change, it said the transition would save money, adding that 911 callers wouldn't notice the difference.

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