CALGARY (660 NEWS) — With a provincial plan to consolidate EMS dispatch services set to take full effect this month around Alberta, several mayors are not giving up their opposition fight.
The plan will remove EMS dispatch services from integrated centres in Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo so that dispatching can instead be handled out of a provincial call centre managed by Alberta Health Services (AHS).
When the plan was first announced in 2020, it generated immediate pushback from the cities as past attempts to consolidate EMS dispatching were shot down.
But this time around, the United Conservative Party government pushed forward, as they said it will save money and improve health outcomes for patients. They have added that most other municipalities operate under a consolidated plan and refuted the concerns raised around it increasing response times and causing other issues.
As the shift comes closer to taking full effect, the mayors said they still have many questions and worries.
“It’s not about partisanship, it is not about politics, or as some have speculated, it’s not even about the money,” Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer said. “This issue is about life and death.”
For everything the province claims as a positive about the adjustment, the mayors say the opposite is in fact true. Some of the most notable concerns are that this could reduce the ability for other first responders — especially firefighters — to respond to medical calls, increase response times, and create confusion as dispatchers may not have a familiarity with the area they are responsible for.
Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said that they have grave concerns about a lack of ability to effectively respond to emergencies in remote communities, especially when their ambulances are tied up with other calls.
He said thousands of letters have been sent to the province, but these concerns have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.
“It is simply unacceptable to ignore the voice of our region and countless other Albertans. We are calling on Premier Kenney to stop AHS’ reckless plan to remove our region’s ability to dispatch ambulances, and to actually listen to Albertans,” Scott said.
The mayors also cited experiences from other municipalities that did undergo consolidation, and they have been attempting to take control of their EMS dispatch services again due to the various issues.
Prior meetings did happen between the municipalities and the province, including one in Edmonton with Health Minister Tyler Shandro. But the mayors said additional requests for meetings or information have largely been ignored and they would also like to hear more from Premier Jason Kenney.
But the little bit of information that has come in over the past weeks has also been concerning, said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, such as how information may or may not be quickly shared with police.
Nenshi said under the current integrated plan, dispatchers for EMS, fire and police all work in the same room. They can easily communicate about emergencies and share calls with each other, so that everyone is apprised of the situation at hand. The consolidated plan will remove that communication, and there’s apparently no obligation for AHS to immediately share information with police or fire.
“Instead, once the caller has hung up, at their own own discretion — with no guidelines on when or how to do it — they may or may not inform Calgary 911. And they haven’t said how they would inform Calgary 911. I know this sounds ridiculous,” Nenshi said.
He said they only learned about this detail last week, adding more fuel to the fire around their concerns with the plan. The consolidation will officially take effect in Calgary on Jan. 26.
“It is actually very, very scary that this bureaucracy has not actually thought through the operational elements because they’re so excited about their victory in gaining control over this piece of the health system. This is a very, very bad outcome in the middle of a pandemic.”
Nenshi said the province should at least pause the plan for now until after the pandemic settles down and the issues they have raised can be properly addressed.
Provincial officials, along with AHS Chief Paramedic Darren Sandbeck, have said this plan will save money and all concerns being raised by the mayors are unfounded. They add this puts all municipalities on even footing when it comes to dispatching ambulance services, and can lead to better operational synergy between communities.
“But I must judge by the evidence today, not in the past,” said Health Minister Tyler Shandro in an October letter announcing the plan would move ahead. “And the plain fact is that dispatch and overall response times are similar across the province — and within AHS’ targets — in the four cities that dispatch ambulances and in those that are dispatched by AHS. There is no reason to expect response times to change.
“While I respect your dedication to your local emergency services, the claim that safety and efficiency require all dispatchers to be in the same room is out of date; it ignores how ambulance services have evolved across Canada and in other countries.”
Nenshi and other officials within Calgary have long agreed, however, that this ignores the special situation with the city’s integrated system, which is labelled as a gold standard by them. Their position has largely boiled down to if it isn’t broken, why fix it.
Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said it is clear from their viewpoint that Albertans are not in favour of the adjustments and they need to have some more complete dialogue to iron out the lasting issues.
“You either have to support your health minister, or support Albertans,” he said. “Today is decision day.”