The mayors of four Alberta municipalities are standing firm in their opposition of a provincial decision to move forward with the consolidation of EMS dispatch for those jurisdictions.
Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo currently dispatch EMS, fire and police from local dispatch centres, but Alberta Health Services announced a proposal to centralize those services in the summer.
AHS has been running a dispatch system for the rest of the province since 2009.
In a joint effort at a virtual news conference held in Red Deer on Tuesday, the mayors said the decision to consolidate EMS dispatch will result in dropped calls, longer response times and negatively impact patient outcomes.
“We would like to go on public record that we strongly oppose this irresponsible decision,” Red Deer mayor Tara Veer said.
“This decision on the part of the minister of health compromises the health and safety, not just for the 43 per cent of Albertans that we represent, but all Albertans.”
The mayors called on Premier Jason Kenney to take action and take a second look at the decision.
“It’s clear that Minister (Tyler) Shandro is not interested in the conversation, he’s not interested in working with us any further on this,” Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said.
“We hope that the premier will step up to protect patients in this province.”
The mayors said that consolidation would result in an additional 200,000 calls for EMS services to the province’s three dispatch centres, which in turn would create delays in response.
According to Veer, AHS isn’t meeting its own standard for dispatch times, and she predicted consolidation would lead to the degradation of services once the transition happens in January 2021.
Both the mayors of Lethbridge and the RM of Wood Buffalo said both communities are able to dispatch ambulances faster than the consolidated EMS system.
In an FAQ sheet released on Tuesday, AHS said it answers EMS calls within 10 seconds 95 per cent of the time, and that ambulance response times will be unchanged.
“Moving to a provincial dispatch system provides several benefits, such as maintaining patient safety and ensuring consistency and sustainability of dispatch services across all communities,” AHS said in a statement.
“A borderless system complemented by a consolidated dispatch system provides improved medical oversight, greater efficiency and better co-ordination of all resources.”
Lethbridge mayor Chris Spearman said he is calling for a third-party review of the net financial and emergency response benefits for the transition, that would include consultations with AHS and the municipalities already operating in the consolidated service.
“That would provide a fair and balanced evaluation of the impact of this change,” Spearman said.
“This is a non-partisan issue… the goals of the municipalities and the provincial government are the same: the best possible patient outcomes.”
AHS has said the changes will save the province more than $6 million per year and that callers to 911 will not notice any change.
Response time data
On Friday, Shandro released a letter to the mayors which confirmed the province would move forward with consolidating the service.
The letter came weeks after a meeting between Shandro and the four municipalities in which they made their case against the decision.
“I look forward to supporting (AHS) and your municipalities during the transition to ensure that emergency health services in your community can improve,” Shandro wrote in the letter.
Nenshi said the letter caught the mayors by surprise, as they thought discussions regarding the change were still ongoing.
The City of Calgary requested historical data from AHS on response times for Calgary and areas that were consolidated in 2009, and Nenshi said the mayors did not receive it until after Shandro sent the letter with his decision.
While he hopes it was a misunderstanding, Nenshi said the province has told the city that the data cannot be shared publicly.
“I suspect they’re nervous because it doesn’t tell the story they have been telling, which is that this will somehow improve patient outcomes when we know and we have plenty of evidence that shows it will not,” he said.
According to Nenshi, Alberta’s chief paramedic is meeting with Calgary city council on Nov. 2 to present the data justifying the decision.
“I expect council members will have a lot of tough questions for him and really will ask him to justify his decision based on evidence and data, which to date he hasn’t been able to do,” Nenshi said.
Opposing views from first-responder unions
The Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the union that represents paramedics across the province, praised the move by the province.
The union’s president said its membership has been waiting 10 years for dispatch to be consolidated.
“There was nobody complaining 10 years ago when paramedics moved, so I’m curious why we see a big hullabaloo going on today about transitioning dispatch,” Mike Parker said.
“It’s good for the paramedics, it’s good for our province, and its a co-ordinated system that will help ambulances and paramedics get to where they need to be.”
However, Parker said the province needs to provide additional resources to the EMS system to prevent further code-red calls.
A code red means there are no ambulances available to respond to calls.
Calgary Firefighters Association union spokesperson Mike Osborne said firefighters are concerned and disappointed with the transition.
“We know seconds matter during emergencies, and anything that delays response times, we see as irresponsible,” he said. “We work shoulder to shoulder with EMS paramedics, and we rely on each other.
“Police, firefighters and paramedics all need to be co-ordinated to respond to Calgary’s emergencies.”
–With files from Global News’ Melissa Gilligan and Adam Toy