RMWB Mayor Sandy Bowman issued a statement following the release of a report commissioned by the Alberta government reviewing EMS Dispatch.
While he didn’t have an opportunity to fully review the report, he said he’s aware the PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ (PWC) review endorses continuing centralized dispatch for EMS.
“I am very disappointed and strongly disagree with this conclusion as it relates to EMS dispatch in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.”
PWC stated from 2017 to 2022, emergency EMS events in the province grew by 39 per cent.
It found that number was driven by a growing, aging population, and other factors such as the opioid crisis.
“Compounding this challenge, the average time to respond to each event has increased by 18.5 minutes from 2017 to 2022 due to hospital wait times, and COVID-19 protocols. This demand for EMS is expected to continue growing, further straining EMS services in the province.”
This comes as Health Minister Jason Copping announced 20 more ambulances for Edmonton and Calgary during peak hours.
Speaking in Spruce Grove, he said the move is part of other reforms to reduce bottlenecks hampering front-line care.
“All EMS workers across the province have been feeling the impact of the significant increase of 911 calls. Response times are too long and we have to get them back down, and that means adding resources and using new strategies.”
Copping added the volume of calls has increased by around 30 per cent over the past year and a half.
Bowman, however, pointed to evidence showing the new centralized system introduced in 2021 has failed.
“It has been two years since the Government of Alberta transitioned EMS dispatch away from the Municipality. Prior to this unfortunate decision, and since then, we have had numerous discussions with the Minister of Health and the Province at various levels and have taken every opportunity to share information and evidence that shows the failure of centralized dispatch for our region.”
The mayor said a comprehensive review of all available evidence would show it’s in Wood Buffalo’s best interest to have local EMS dispatch.
An additional report by the Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee also made recommendations to help reduce pressures on ambulances that are causing a domino effect of long wait times and overcrowding in the health system.
“Front-line EMS practitioners are overextended and at breaking point. EMS crews wait long periods of time at emergency departments to hand off a patient to hospital staff.”
The report also stated that remote areas are being penalized as scarce resources are increasingly redirected to the larger centres.
It called for more recruitment and opportunities for enhanced training of staff.
Copping said the Alberta government agreed to and will act on those recommendations.
“I will be reviewing the documents further with my Council colleagues, CAO, and Regional Fire Chief,” Said Mayor Bowman. “As well, I have again been in touch with Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping, and look forward to speaking more in-depth with him, Parliamentary Secretary Sigurdson and our MLAs, regarding the report and review, as soon as possible.”
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd called the move to bring in 20 ambulances too little, too late.
“The UCP is completely ignoring clear calls from paramedics themselves to get crews off shift on time, to offer all paramedics a permanent full-time contract with benefits and the expansion of harm reduction services to cut down on the huge number of calls related to drug poisonings.”
The president of Health Sciences Association of Alberta, Mike Parker, shared his thoughts with reporters on a Zoom call.
He said more ambulances don’t mean anything without the hiring of professionals to staff them.
“Calgary had more than 9,000 unfilled shifts last year. The issue is a lack of paramedics, not a lack of ambulances. What we have right now is a system that functions in a code red system all day long, and it’s burning out our folks.”
Parker added Edmonton had over twice the number Calgary had in unfilled shifts.
Bowman said the focus should be on the people of the region.
“At the end of the day, this is about what is best for the people that live here and call this place home, not about which level of government has control over the service. We want EMS dispatch returned to the Municipality because it would lead to shorter response times and better overall service for people in our communities.”
Copping has said the province is now considering recruiting paramedics from places like Australia.
Parker reacted, saying that wouldn’t cut it, since Australia is also facing a paramedic crisis.
Wood Buffalo, Red Deer, Lethbridge, and Calgary have been fighting to restore local EMS dispatching in their respective communities.
With files from The Canadian Press on Jan. 16, 2023.