First response teams in southern Alberta are sounding the alarm after Alberta Health Services announced Tuesday that EMS dispatch will be consolidated to three main centres — without consultation or warning.
“It was shocking actually, that they would just announce it in a public statement rather than consulting with us prior to this,” Warren Nelson, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 237, said on Wednesday.
Consolidation has been suggested several times over the years but was shut down repeatedly by municipalities and first responders who cited concerns with delays in service.
“A lot of times, local knowledge plays into that,” Frank West, director of emergency services for Picture Butte, said. “So it’s something that’s going to have to be transferred to the new dispatch.
“The dispatchers in Lethbridge provide us with an excellent service. Not saying the new dispatch centre won’t, but it’s a relationship we have to build with them.”
Another issue repeatedly raised is the disruption of integrated EMS and fire services in many southern Alberta communities.
“All of our firefighters are trained EMS personnel as well, so when they need assistance, we’re in the same building and can provide that assistance,” explained Nelson.
“Now they will have to request that assistance through the dispatch centre in Calgary.”
AHS officials said they are prepared to handle both local geography and integrated services with experience from around Edmonton and robust mapping systems that include a list of alternate location nicknames.
The change is partly based on an independent review by Ernst and Young that cites a projected savings of around $6 million.
Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said that doesn’t take into account the additional expenses of losing integrated EMS-fire responses, which he said saves the province around $3 million per year in Lethbridge alone.
“When we look at the 4,703 medical first responses and motor vehicle collisions attended to in 2019, the value of that is $2.89 million,” Spearman said.
AHS officials said their radio systems allow first responders to request backup quickly and easily, and operators are trained with knowledge of local areas to best direct what services are necessary.
“AHS already handles EMS dispatch for over 60 per cent of the population and the vast majority of Alberta’s communities,” a spokesperson from Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s office said.
“The $6 million per year saved through this common-sense change will be invested right back into front-line health-care services.”
Until first response teams in southern Alberta see those claims play out in real-time, they remain skeptical.
“Our citizens deserve to have that coverage here in Lethbridge,” Nelson said. “We’re here to protect our citizens and that’s going to be lost with this dispatch system.”
Shandro has promised to meet with several Alberta mayors to address these concerns later this month.