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Alberta mayors, first responders voice concerns over EMS dispatch changes to health minister

Click to play video '4 Alberta mayors who oppose 911 EMS dispatch consolidation meet with health minister' 4 Alberta mayors who oppose 911 EMS dispatch consolidation meet with health minister
Alberta's health minister met with the mayors from Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Fort McMurray area, who say the government's plan to consolidate 911 emergency medical service dispatch services will put lives at risk. Nicole Stillger reports – Sep 24, 2020

Four Alberta mayors, a number of first responders and two NDP MLAs tried to ratchet up the pressure on the provincial government on Thursday, once again asking it to reverse a decision to centralize emergency first responder dispatch services.

The mayors of Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo all gathered in Edmonton to meet with newly Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and AHS’ chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck to voice their concerns about the dispatch consolidation announced by Alberta Health Services last month.

“After today’s meeting with the ministers, I remain greatly concerned, but I believe the information we shared is one step forward in this very important process,” Don Scott, the mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said in a joint statement issued by all four mayors. “This consolidation is not about improving patient outcomes.

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“This is the very same consolidation that was proposed over 10 years ago. We fought it then and won because the province recognized the negative impact it would have. Our provincial officials once again need to recognize that and reverse this decision.”

The mayors of Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo met with Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 to discuss plans to consolidate EMS Dispatch Services.
The mayors of Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo met with Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 to discuss plans to consolidate EMS Dispatch Services. Cam Cook, Global News

Earlier this month, the mayors signed a letter that was sent to Shandro saying they believe the move will cause problems and possibly cost lives.

“When it comes to emergency services, the goal of our municipalities — and I believe the province of Alberta — is to provide excellent patient outcomes using the most efficient system possible,” Chris Spearman, the mayor of Lethbridge, said on Thursday.

READ MORE: ‘It will cost lives’: Alberta mayors continue fight against EMS dispatch changes 

“Today we delivered evidence to the ministers that makes it very clear that these goals are being met with our current system and removing integrated EMS dispatch will threaten the safety and well-being of Albertans.

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“My hope is that they now understand the consequences of this decision and the ministers will come to the same conclusion as those before them: it does not make sense to remove EMS dispatch from our communities.”

In Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, ambulances and fire serves are currently dispatched through municipal centres.

The changes being brought in, which will bring the four cities in line with what is already done in 60 per cent of the province, will still see calls go to a municipal dispatch centre.

But if EMS is needed, it will be transferred to an AHS dispatcher at one of three call centres across the province. That person will contact paramedics. If fire is also needed, the municipal dispatcher will have to be contacted to then reach out to firefighters.

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The mayors of the municipalities that will be impacted by the change argue that dispatchers in their community rely on local knowledge of things like landmarks to tell first responders where they need to go, especially in cases where responders are being called to somewhere that does not have an actual address.

Previous governments have also mulled over consolidating dispatch services but received pushback from municipalities that would be affected by the change.

The Kenney government has said the changes are being made to bring the four municipalities in line with the rest of the province.

Shandro has previously said while the move is expected to save the government $6 million a year, the savings aren’t what prompted the change.

READ MORE: Consolidating EMS 911 dispatch services will save money, improve patient care: Alberta Health Services 

Following the discussion with the mayors on Thursday, Shandro issued a statement to Global News and described it as a “good meeting.”

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“I told the mayors what I’ve told Albertans: I think consolidating ambulance dispatch into AHS makes sense,” he said. “It will make the system work better and save money that we’ll reinvest in the health system. Most importantly, the evidence I’ve seen shows it won’t change response times or cause delays for ambulances or other first responders.

“But I respect the mayors’ concerns and the information they shared, and I committed to them that we’ll review their concerns and get back to them before the transition begins.”

In a statement, Red Deer mayor Tara Veer said she believes Shandro showed at the meeting that he “is willing to seek out additional information from municipalities to understand the impact consolidation will have on local patients.”

“[However], until the minister formally reverses this decision and commits to keeping EMS dispatch local, we will continue to ask our community to put pressure on the government. We know that Alberta Health Services’ proposal to remove local EMS dispatch from Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge and Wood Buffalo and consolidate down to three provincial communication centres, will not result in cost savings, and even more concerning, puts Albertans lives at risk, in moments where seconds count.”
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Watch below: Some Global News videos about EMS dispatch services in Alberta.

“The local knowledge and integration with fire services, who are first on the scene to deliver life-saving care in 50 per cent of cases, cannot be overlooked if safety outcomes are the No. 1 priority,” Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said in a statement.

“It is now up to the minister to make his determination with the facts in front of him.”

Notley and Phillips join firefighters in Lethbridge to call for reversal of dispatch decision

In Lethbridge on Thursday, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley and NDP MLA Shannon Phillips joined Kelly L’Hirondelle, the deputy chief of Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services, and Warren Nelson, president of IAFF Local 237, to call on the government to walk back its decision to consolidate dispatch services.

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“There is no evidence that this move will improve ambulance services,” Notley said in a statement. “And there’s a real chance it will make services worse.

“It’s just not worth it to roll the dice on such a critical system with the lives of Albertans at stake.”

Notley also accused Shandro of not properly consulting with the mayors of the affected municipalities about the decision, or the first responders in those communities.

“This is not a partisan issue. It’s a public safety issue and a Lethbridge issue,” said Shannon Phillips, MLA for Lethbridge West.

L’Hirondelle said he believes first responders, municipalities and the province all have the same goals at the end of the day: “The best possible patient outcomes, financial efficiencies, and operational efficiencies.”

“[But] it is our opinion that consolidating EMS dispatch services accomplishes none of those things,” he said.

The change to dispatch services for the four municipalities is expected to be complete in six months.

AHS has tree EMS dispatch centres in Calgary, Edmonton and Slave Lake that currently dispatch ambulances for 60 per cent of the province’s population.

The Alberta government said Thursday that EMS response times in Edmonton — where AHS handles dispatch — are slightly shorter than in Calgary, while overall response times are at or within AHS’ target in both cities.

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“Dispatch is part of total response time,” the government said in a statement. “All seven AHS and municipal dispatch centres are within AHS’ target of 90 seconds.”

Barry Morishita, the president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, said his organization supports the mayors in their fight.

“We don’t think that adequate consultation and consideration was done in this process,” he said. “And, you know, for $6 million it seems that they’re potentially saving, I’m not sure that we have clearly articulated how the service is going to be as good or better.

“I think the four mayors of those municipalities spoke very eloquently about why there needs to be a reconsideration.

Morishita also spoke about the city of Brooks and the experience it has had with a number of different consolidations it’s been a part of in the health-care sphere.

“There has to be a local consideration for almost everything,” he said.

“And that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be more expensive. I think that there has to be a thought to bringing together priorities and resources. And then you address the needs of those communities specifically. I don’t think enough of that happens. It certainly didn’t happen in Brooks.”

–With files from Global News’ Breanna Karstens-Smith and Adam Toy

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