Medical emergency on Alberta First Nation raises concerns over ambulance shortage

A tragic situation on an Alberta First Nation west of Calgary has raised concerns about ambulance resources in the province.

Details around death of baby girl, hospitalization of others with 'flu-like illness' not yet known

RCMP are still on scene Friday after a baby died on Stoney Nakoda Nation west of Calgary. The major crimes unit is part of the ongoing investigation. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

One Alberta politician says a tragic situation on an Alberta First Nation west of Calgary raises concerns about ambulance resources in the province.

On Wednesday, a four-month old girl was found dead and 12 other people — 10 children and two adults — in the same household were discovered ill with "influenza-type symptoms" on the Stoney First Nation west of Calgary.

RCMP said Thursday the adults have been released from hospital, while the 10 children remain in stable condition.

One of them, a two-year-old girl, remains in serious but stable condition.

The family members will be staying with relatives as RCMP continue to hold the house, pending the results of the baby girl's autopsy. The results of that autopsy could be released Friday if completed, but may not be finished until Monday.

Strained system

Dr. David Swann, the MLA for Calgary-Mountain View, thinks the number of ambulances from across the region that responded — six in total, including the local ambulance — shows how a large incident in or around Alberta's biggest city can hamper an already strained system.

Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann says Calgary may not have enough ambulances to handle a major disaster. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"Sources indicated a citywide appeal was made to find five ambulances free to travel an hour out to Morley. This left the city vulnerable to any large patient event and highlights the fact that we cannot safely manage a major disaster," he said in a news release.

Speaking to CBC News, the Liberal MLA said it's not just the city that's impacted. 

"And what that means also for the surrounding communities, which then have to be pulled into Calgary because Calgary  is short, then the surrounding communities are short."

Additional resources called in

AHS responded to the allegations by email, saying patient care was not compromised but that "any unplanned, large-scale event can have a temporary impact to resource availability."

The emailed statement, attributed to Randy Bryksa, associate executive director of EMS, clarified the numbers.

He said one crew from Kananaskis and two from Calgary were called in to support two ambulances from the Stoney First Nation. 

Two off-duty crews were brought in for extra coverage during the response, he said. 

Increased funding

Asked about the issue Thursday, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said she was shocked by the girl's death but that her government has committed additional resources to EMS.

One of the six ambulances that responded to the incident Wednesday can be seen through the trees at the home on the Stoney Nakoda Nation. (CBC)

"I believe that we need to do more for our EMS and that's one of the reasons why we're proposing a budget that has a substantial increase to EMS funding," she said.

"It's also why we've expanded the community paramedicine program, to ensure that as many paramedics are available to respond to calls, whether it's having to take someone to hospital or not, if they can provide care closer to home obviously that's better, and why we're also building long-term care spaces, so that our emergency rooms don't face the backlog and paramedics aren't tied up in those emergency rooms."

Union response

The union representing Alberta's paramedics raised the alarm on ambulances shortages in March after receiving documents that showed funding and staffing hasn't kept pace with demand or population increases. 

Mike Parker, the president of the HSAA, says demand is far outstripping staff and funding in Alberta's ambulance system. (Colin Hall/CBC)

The president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta also said crews from outlying areas are regularly pulled into the cities in order to cover shortages, leaving towns unprotected. 

After the provincial budget announced an additional $29 million in funding EMS, Parker said in a news release that his group would be watching closely to ensure "it goes to the front lines where it's needed." 

It's not known at this time if the tragedy on the Stoney First Nation resulted in an ambulance shortage for Calgary or surrounding areas. 

First Nation statement

On Friday, the chief of the Wesley First Nation, one of three bands that make up the Stoney, released a statement asking the public and media to respect the privacy of the affected family. 

"A more comprehensive and meaningful dialogue must take place on a 'Nation to Nation' level in order to improve the health and wellbeing of our nation's peoples and improve the lives of all Indigenous citizens in this country we call Canada," reads the statement. 

Stoney Nakoda Nation officials were asking for privacy for the family Friday, saying at this time they are 'co-operating fully with all the provincial and federal agencies involved in investigating this tragic event.' (CBC)