Kitchener-Waterloo

Investigation launched into ambulance delay after dispatch move to Hamilton

A former dispatcher says an ambulance in Waterloo region was delayed by 16 minutes on Dec. 23 because it was sent to the wrong location.

Dispatchers moved from Cambridge to Hamilton where caller-locator services are unavailable: union

The province has moved ambulance dispatchers based in Cambridge to Hamilton due to a staffing shortage. A former dispatcher says the Hamilton office doesn't have the right gear to pinpoint a caller's location, which may have led to an ambulance being sent to the wrong location. (CBC)

Paramedics in Waterloo region have started an internal investigation after it was revealed an ambulance may have been sent to the wrong location in late December.

Matt Wagner, a former ambulance communications officer in Cambridge, says he was told about a 911 call on Dec. 23 when an emergency vehicle was sent to one location before being redirected to St. Jacobs.

This led to a 16-minute delay in the ambulance arriving to the correct address, Wagner says.

Wagner said he learned of the call from current EMS dispatchers. 

'Unable to comment'

Region of Waterloo Public Health officials confirmed there is now an internal investigation underway, but they refused to identify when the incident took place, the length of the delay or the location of the call. 

"Paramedic services is aware of the situation and has concerns surrounding the circumstances," officials said in a statement. "Because this is an open investigation, we are unable to comment about it at this time."

CBC News has contacted the Ontario Ministry of Health, but so far the provincial government has not provided any details about the incident.

The investigation comes on the heels of concerns from a local union that a dispatcher shortage and recent call centre relocation would increase wait times and put patients at risk

Staffing shortage, closure

In December, the Cambridge Central Ambulance Communications Centre, where 911 calls in the region are processed, was closed due to a staffing shortage. Operations were moved to Hamilton.

Wagner said dispatchers now working in Hamilton don't have access to location information for patients when people call 911. 

The Hamilton centre doesn't have access to automatic number identification (the phone number where the call originates) and automatic location identifier (ANI/ALI) data, Wagner said. Dispatchers in Cambridge did have access to that data, he said.

"Can you imagine trying to call 911 in an emergency for one of your loved ones, and they don't know where you are?" Wagner said.

"There's no worse call you can take as an ambulance dispatcher, or call taker, than a young boy saying, 'Mommy won't wake up.' That's a terrifying thing," he said. "Thank God there's ANI/ALI information showing us where that kid is, because otherwise that call's a nightmare of just trying to get help to somebody."

Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care spokesperson David Jenson told CBC K-W in December "there will be no impact to 911 services in the Waterloo/Wellington area. The ministry is ensuring that when someone calls 911 for an ambulance, an ambulance communications officer will continue to answer the call, dispatch the closest available ambulance and provide the caller with pre-arrival first aid instruction."

Lucy Morton, regional vice president for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo in December that Hamilton did not have ANI/ALI data and that could impact response times. 

"Sometimes just seconds is the difference between life and death, but if they're delayed and they can't find you, those precious moments may be the last ones you ever have," she said, noting it could take up to two months to equip the Hamilton centre with the technology needed.

Cambridge centre will reopen, MPP says

Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris says the ministry of health "has a plan to stabilize staffing levels and move the 911 calls back to Cambridge as quickly and safely as possible."

"I have been in contact with the ministry on this issue, who have ensured me that when someone calls 911 for an ambulance, an ambulance communications officer will continue to answer the call, dispatch the closest available ambulance and provide the caller with pre-arrival first aid instruction," Harris said in an emailed statement to CBC K-W Thursday.

In the meantime, Guelph and Waterloo regional police dispatchers are also available to help 911 call takers when they need help finding a patient, Harris said.

In his statement, Harris said the ministry of health is working with Bell Canada "to ensure Hamilton is equipped with caller location technology."

"Residents and our first responders need the best tools," Harris said.

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