Red Deer asks province to suspend transfer of ambulance dispatch

EDMONTON – A decision to centralize ambulance dispatch isn’t sitting well with the City of Red Deer and it’s asking the province to suspend the transfer of services.

The Alberta government decided to centralize ambulance dispatch to three centres – Edmonton, Calgary and Peace River – following a recommendation from the Health Quality Council of Alberta (HQCA) in March. (Read the full report below).

“We’ve got a system that works very efficiently, and has worked for the last three and a half years,” says Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling.

“Right now, we’re saying, ‘it isn’t broken, why would we try to fix it?’”

Last week the city asked the province to suspend any transfer of service until concerns are responded to and further discussions take place about service to citizens of Red Deer.

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“This move towards centralization means the dissolution of the ambulance dispatch business in Red Deer,” said City Manager Craig Curtis. “We urge the Province to reconsider this decision. Ten days ago we met with our MLAs and staff from the Department of Health and Wellness and Alberta Health Services to ensure we are heard in critical decisions affecting the well-being of our citizens and community.”

Alberta Health Services says the changes to the dispatch system won’t impact patient care.

“Patients won’t see a change,” says Stu Williams with AHS. “We’ve done these transitions in the past. It’s a seamless transition from one dispatch centre to another.”

“We have an ambulance system in our city that responds in four minutes travelling time or less, 90 per cent of the time. That’s a very, very, very high level of service,” explains Flewwelling.

“We don’t want our ambulance service to be degraded by delays in ambulance dispatch from Calgary or from the lack of proper interface with our current emergency services system.

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“We don’t know that it would be degraded, but we don’t want to run that risk.”

The HQCA recommended two centres, but the province decided on three.

“The HQCA said two centres, one each in Calgary and Edmonton, would be adequate,” explained Bart Johnson, press secretary for the Minister of Health.  “We have added a third in Peace River to provide extra assurance and to ensure we have a backup in the event of technical problems at either one of the other centres. A fourth site is not necessary.”

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Red Deer officials say if the three-centre model is used, Red Deer will only be served by Calgary, which would have no backup. They say Edmonton dispatchers could use the Peace River centre as a backup.

Red Deer is asking the province to consider a model of five centres: Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer (central), Peace River (north), and a southern location. The city argues this model would allow for a reasonable span of control for each centre without overwhelming two centralized dispatch units.

“We understand the concerns raised by the City of Red Deer, but we are confident the three dispatch centres will meet the needs of all Albertans, including residents of Central Alberta,” responded Johnson.

“Once all ambulance dispatch is consolidated, Alberta will have a borderless ground ambulance system in which the closest ambulance can be sent to a call regardless of which zone it operates out of,” Johnson said.

Red Deer’s mayor is also worried that – under the new system – dispatchers from another area may not be familiar with the local geography.

“If you look at a map and don’t understand the road and highway system and you’ve got the Red Deer River or the Bow River cutting through, you could be dispatching on the wrong side of the river if you’re not knowledgeable of the area, and that’s the point that we make. The span of control, we believe, is too great.”

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In March, the province accepted most of the recommendations outlined in the HQCA report, including one which recommended the provincial government finish work to consolidate 911 dispatch centres to the three centres.

In February 2012, the Minister of Alberta Health and Wellness (now Alberta Health) directed the HQCA to conduct an independent review of the operations of ground emergency medical services (EMS) in Alberta.

Under section 9 of the Alberta Evidence Act, the HQCA appointed a quality assurance committee to review the implications for quality and patient safety with respect to ground EMS including:

 1. Transition issues related to the transfer of governance and funding of ground EMS from municipalities to Alberta Health Services (AHS).

2. The consolidation of ground EMS dispatch services under AHS.

3. Challenges specific to integrated fire/EMS service providers.

4. Challenges specific to urban, rural, and remote areas of the province.

5. Availability and adequacy of EMS data.

“When the consolidation of the EMS dispatch system was put on hold by the Minister of Health and Wellness in March 2010, the consequence was a patchwork of EMS dispatch services that included a combination of three AHS dispatch centres (two AHS owned and operated and one contracted) and numerous municipal dispatch centres, some with multiple dispatch roles,” read the HQCA report.

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“It is recommended that a review is undertaken of opportunities to develop a shared dispatch information infrastructure to improve system redundancy and allow for system optimization.”

HQCA: Review of Operations of Ground Emergency Medical Services in Alberta

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