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Alberta health minister moves forward with changes to EMS dispatch despite opposition from mayors, first responders

WATCH ABOVE: Some Global News videos about EMS dispatch services in Alberta.

The Alberta government is moving forward with a contentious proposal to centralize EMS dispatch services despite opposition from mayors of the municipalities that will be impacted, as well as some emergency responders.

In an email to Global News on Friday afternoon, the press secretary for Health Minister Tyler Shandro confirmed the development and provided parts of a letter sent to the mayors.

“As I promised at our meeting, I have carefully reviewed the detailed information that you shared,” Shandro’s letter reads in part. He later tweeted out the letter in its entirety.

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The minister met with the mayors of Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Edmonton late last month to listen to their concerns. The mayors have argued centralizing dispatch services will cost lives and create other problems.

“My decision is to not overturn AHS’ decision, and I look forward to supporting them and your municipalities during the transition to ensure that emergency health services in your communities can improve,” Shandro’s letter reads.

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

The proposal to further consolidate dispatch services was announced by Alberta Health Services during the summer.

Shandro said AHS made the decision to further consolidate EMS dispatch services based on recommendations from the Health Quality Council of Alberta in 2013 and the AHS Performance Review by Ernst and Young in 2019.

In Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, ambulances and fire services 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 a location that does not have an actual address.

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

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

Shandro acknowledged that past governments have chosen not to consolidate EMS dispatch services, but said he “must judge by the evidence today, not in the past.”

“The plain fact is that dispatch and overall response times are similar across the province,” his letter reads.

After meeting with the mayors last month, Shandro said he would consider the concerns raised by the municipal leaders.

The Opposition’s health critic issued a statement on Friday afternoon that accused the Alberta government of ignoring the mayors’ objections.

“Jason Kenney and Tyler Shandro have refused to look at the evidence, and refused to listen to four mayors and fire chiefs from across Alberta,” NDP MLA David Shepherd said. “There’s a real chance these changes will make service levels worse in these communities.

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“Jason Kenney is rolling the dice with Albertans’ lives to pay for his $4.7-billion corporate handout.”

Shepherd noted the idea of moving to consolidate services was previously rejected by the NDP government and “three previous PC health ministers.”

“This is not a partisan issue. It’s a public safety issue,” he said. “It’s reprehensible that Jason Kenney is refusing to listen to four elected mayors, four fire chiefs, members of his own caucus, and the many Albertans who have studied this plan and rejected it.

“If lives are lost as a result of this decision, Jason Kenney will answer for them.”

Last month, Kelly L’Hirondelle, the deputy chief of Lethbridge Fire and Emergency Services, 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.

In his email on Friday, Shandro’s press secretary Steve Buick noted that the health minister has said 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,” adding there was no reason to expect response times to change.

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“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,” Shandro’s letter reads. “Today’s computer-assisted dispatch technology allows multiple services to be co-ordinated seamlessly regardless of where the dispatchers physically sit or who employs them.”

Shandro also reiterated his position that the move “is not a budget-driven decision.”

“It will result in savings of several million dollars a year, but not one dollar will be removed from the EMS budget,” his letter reads. “Every dollar AHS saves will be reinvested directly back into improving ground-ambulance services.

“There’s no good reason to keep spending $9 million a year on these contracts. That’s $9 million that should be invested in improving service — not in redundant dispatch.”

Global News reached out to the mayors of Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo for comment on Friday’s decision.

A spokesperson for Calgary’s mayor’s office sent Global News a joint statement from all four mayors.

“We are strongly opposed to this Friday afternoon announcement by Minister Shandro, conveniently delivered just as the first major winter storm blows into Alberta,” the statement reads.

“His letter contains many inaccuracies and we will address these, together, early next week.”

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On Thursday, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said high-ranking paramedics have argued the consolidation will not increase response time.

“We asked a very simple question: can you show us how in the places you’ve done it, it did not increase response times?” Nenshi said. “The fact that they haven’t provided that data after weeks and weeks of asking indicates to me, of course, it did increase response times and they don’t want to tell anybody that.”

On Tuesday, Red Deer city council issued a statement once again calling on Shandro to stop the consolidation from going forward.

“We know that Alberta Health Services’ proposal to remove local ambulance dispatch from Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge and Wood Buffalo and consolidate down to three provincial communication centres, will put Red Deerians and all Albertans’ lives at risk, in critical moments where seconds count,” Mayor Tara Veer said.

“Red Deer’s integrated dispatch system is an effective system that delivers exceptional life-saving service to people in the central Alberta region and by removing dispatch, patients will see a delay in response as our fire units may not be sent when they are closer and provide life-saving care in life-and-death emergencies when it matters most.”

In a news release issued by Red Deer city council, it said Red Deer’s “current integrated municipal dispatch centre dispatches ambulance 18-21 seconds faster than the provincial communication centres.”

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“I have heard it suggested that this change is an unwarranted risk or a ‘step into the unknown,'” Shandro’s letter reads. “I absolutely reject any such suggestion.”

He reiterated that 60 per cent of Alberta already uses the model that will be implemented and other jurisdictions do as well.

“I trust that the transition will occur seamlessly over the next few months,” his letter reads.

AHS provided Global News with statistics related to EMS dispatch for August. The health authority explained Time to Dispatch First Ambulance measures how long it takes a dispatch emergency communications officer (ECO) to verify the location of an emergency, figure out where the closest ambulance is and then to notify an ambulance crew that they are needed.

“This time interval starts with the receipt of the call into the AHS EMS dispatch centre and ends with the notification of the closest ambulance crew,” AHS said. “The dispatch ECO will continue to gather information and provide further instructions while the ambulance is responding to the emergency.

“The data provided only represents emergency calls requiring a lights-and-siren response.”

The health authority said it has implemented a target of one minute and 30 seconds “at the 90th percentile.”

“All current dispatch centres have comparable performance for activating the first ambulance to an emergency event,” AHS said. “All EMS dispatch centres have a performance expectation of verifying the address and assigning the closest ambulance within 90 seconds.

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“AHS reports this performance level on a system-wide basis on our website.”

Below are AHS’ figures for August when it comes to Time to Dispatch First Ambulance for various municipalities:

-Calgary 911: 89 seconds
-AHS central call centre (Edmonton): 81 seconds
-Fort McMurray: 69 seconds
-Lethbridge: 70 seconds
-AHS northern call centre (Peace River): 81 seconds
-Red Deer: 63 seconds
-AHS southern call centre (Calgary): 84 seconds