Alberta mayors, fire captains say new centralized ambulance dispatch a threat to patient safety

Four Alberta mayors say Alberta Health Service's decision to consolidate EMS services is causing delays that put people at risk, and firefighters in a northern Alberta hamlet are chiming in with their concerns about recent problems caused by the new system.

Injured man waited an hour for help, local fire crew could have been there in minutes

The Anzac Fire Department is made up of local volunteers, and can help residents while they wait for ambulances from Fort McMurray, about 50 kilometres away. (Submitted by Julie Stewart)

Four Alberta mayors say Alberta Health Service's decision to consolidate EMS services is causing delays that put people at risk, and firefighters in a northern Alberta hamlet are chiming in with their concerns about recent problems caused by the new system.

Sean Steil, a fire department captain in the Wood Buffalo hamlet of Anzac, said a 20-year-old man — a former member of the community's youth fire department — lay in the snow after a snowmobile accident, unconscious and severely injured, for almost an hour after 911 was called.

At 9 p.m., when a neighbour called to report the accident, the message wasn't given to Anzac's fire department. That meant the man waited 55 minutes for an ambulance to arrive from Fort McMurray, almost 50 kilometres away.

Steil, who was at his home across the street from where the snowmobile accident happened, was one of four members of the fire department who could have been there within minutes.

"There's brotherhood," said Steil, who didn't know about the incident until a fellow volunteer firefighter noticed an ambulance on the street around 9:55 p.m. "And we weren't there." 

Throughout January, AHS centralized the ambulance dispatch calls for Red Deer, Wood Buffalo, Calgary and Lethbridge. The mayors of those municipalities have been fighting the decision for months. 

In the past, when there are emergencies in Anzac, the fire department has been notified because it can provide emergency medical assistance while waiting for an ambulance, said Julie Stewart, fire captain with the Anzac Fire Department

Julie Stewart, fire captain, says the new dispatch consolidation is creating delays in response times. (Submitted by Julie Stewart)

"We would've been eight minutes after that initial 911 call … and he didn't see any type of patient care for 55 minutes." 

Stewart noted the ambulance that responded to the incident didn't come in "hot", meaning its sirens and lights were not on. 

"I certainly hope that I don't lose a community member to these gaps," Stewart added. 

Prior to the change, dispatchers knew the geography and understood the time delay challenges of getting medical assistance in Anzac, Stewart said.

"You have people making big decisions that have never driven this highway," said Stewart. 

Steil noted that there have been two major incidents in two weeks among the 600 people who live in and around the community. 

"When we're not there for our community members, then we feel like the failures — despite the fact that this is not our failure," said Steil. 

Mayors demand an explanation, inquiry

The mayors of Red Deer, Wood Buffalo, Lethbridge and Calgary hosted a news conference on Monday to address the issue.

They're calling for an investigation into a technical outage that occurred within the first week of the transition to consolidating EMS services. 

The outage resulted in AHS emergency medical services dispatching ambulances manually. At the time, they did not have access to the GPS tracking of ambulances or the ability to access ambulance mobile numbers. 

"Our experience … demonstrates that AHS has not been transparent with us and does not share information with us as they had committed to do," said Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer. 

Veer added that dispatch times have become delayed, and said the mayors are requesting a third-party review of consolidation. 

The mayors are still offering to pay for dispatch services, an offer that has so far been rejected. 

Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said Wood Buffalo dispatchers have had to intervene in 20 per cent of calls. 

"It's a complete calamity," said Scott. 

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the situation is "outrageous."

Nenshi said Alberta's minister of health and its chief paramedic promised that the change would not harm patient outcomes. "We've been calling for change since August … and this is not acceptable." 

AHS says service is the same

Alberta Health Services responded to some of these claims during a Monday news conference. 

Darren Sandbeck, chief paramedic, said he is aware of the "inaccurate claims" made about the dispatch service. 

"There is absolutely no evidence that the recent consolidation of EMS dispatch has led to any delays or inappropriate responses in any of the communities where consolidation occurs." 

He said the dispatch service has the same access to all the information as the previous dispatchers. "Ambulance services in each community continue to be delivered by the same local paramedics who have always provided this service," he said.

Sandbeck added that the technical outage would have occurred regardless of consolidation. 

He also addressed the snowmobile accident in Anzac. Sandbeck said the accident was responded to as quickly as possible. 

The snowmobile accident was transferred to AHS as an "unknown" problem. 

"This is not an event that the fire department has agreed to respond to." 

Stewart called it "mind-blowing" that a 20-year-old with head trauma, a potential spinal injury and broken bones wouldn't be considered a priority call. 

Sandbeck said the incident was responded to exactly the same way it would have been pre-consolidation. 

"Our dispatch system works well. It is effective and has the best interest of all of our patients and all Albertans at heart." 


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