Alberta paramedic union raises red flag over ambulance red alerts

The union that represents Alberta paramedics is calling on Alberta Health Services to tell Albertans "the full story" about the state of ambulance services.

‘This is putting anybody who is dialling 911 in critical peril,’ union president says

Members of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta have told the union that there have been at least 135 occasions in the past 50 days when no ambulance was available to respond to a call. (CBC)

The union that represents Alberta paramedics is calling on Alberta Health Services to tell Albertans "the full story" about the state of ambulance services.

There have been at least 135 instances in the last 50 days when no ambulances were available if people needed one, according to the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents over 27,000 health-care workers and paramedics.

"HSAA is calling on Alberta Health Services (AHS) to tell Albertans the full story of what is happening when people need an ambulance," the union said in a news release this week.

When no resources are available in places like Edmonton or Calgary, ambulances are drawn in from outlying communities, union president Mike Parker said.

"This is putting anybody who is dialling 911 in critical peril."

In some cases, paramedics and ambulances have to travel considerable distances to respond to calls because they are the nearest unit available, he said.

Recently, a paramedic team from Kananaskis responded to a 911 call in Calgary, he added. Kananaskis is about 75 kilometres west of the city.

HSAA president Mike Parker wants the Alberta Government to release more information on the state of ambulance service in the province. (HSAA website)

Meanwhile, during the same 50-day period, more than 60 outlying communities had an ambulance parked for at least a day due to a lack of crews. There are 290 unfilled paramedic shifts this week, the union says.

The strain on paramedics has been a growing issue for a decade, and several governments, including the NDP, have failed to take action, said Parker.

The problem has only worsened due to population growth, the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis, he added.

Parker is calling on the Alberta government for statistics around paramedics.

"They need to start showing how bad this system is," he said. "They know what's going on, they know the fix. It's leadership that has failed these paramedics and it's got to be corrected immediately."

A spokesperson for AHS — the authority in charge of delivering health care in the province — said paramedics are responding to up to 30 per cent more calls this year. But anyone who needs an ambulance will get one, AHS said.

"We are ensuring that the most critical patients are prioritized for receiving immediate care," Kerry Williamson said in an email.

Red alerts or code reds do not mean AHS emergency services cannot respond, the spokesperson said. The alert is meant to signal when and where more resources are needed so AHS can respond appropriately.

Code reds often only last "a few seconds to a couple of minutes," and end when resources are freed up or ambulances from other jurisdictions take the call, Williamson said.

AHS has increased the number of paramedics by nine per cent over the past two years, Williamson said. It currently has 2,891 paramedics, up from 2,659 in 2019, and is filling 100 paramedic positions across the province.

AHS is offering overtime to staff willing to work, and is finding ways to send patients to other locations other than hospitals, such as urgent care centres, Williamson said.


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