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Alberta cities offer to pay for service in order to keep EMS dispatch local

Nearly two months ago, Alberta health minister decided not to block the consolidation of EMS dispatch services, but on Tuesday, three municipalities in the province announced they have pitched a plan to keep the service local. File/Global News

Nearly two months ago, Alberta’s health minister decided not to block the consolidation of EMS dispatch services, but on Tuesday, three municipalities in the province announced they have pitched a plan to keep the service local.

“The provincial government’s decision to remove this local service is driven by supposed cost savings, so we are prepared to pay for the service in the interest of public safety,” Red Deer mayor Tara Veer said in a news release issued Tuesday.

The City of Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo are also onboard with the idea, while the City of Calgary — the other municipality that will be affected by consolidation in January — did not express the same intention.

READ MORE: Alberta mayors reiterate opposition to EMS consolidation, appeal to Kenney to intervene 

“We have heard over and over again from the provincial government that this is not a question of money — it’s a question of safety,” said Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. “So why in the world would it make sense to make it a question of money from the perspective of Calgary? The other three municipalities, they have a little more skin in the game because they have integrated services and frankly, it’s less money than it is for Calgary.

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“Calgary loses money on this already, and the minister has continually said it’s not about the money, So I’m not interested in making it about the money.”

Nenshi said it would cost Calgary about $6 million to pay for the service.

The municipalities receive funding every year from Alberta Health Services to operate local ambulance dispatch through integrated municipal dispatch centres.

“By offering to pay for the services, municipalities would retain current emergency ambulance dispatch services at no cost to the province,” reads a news release issued by the City of Red Deer.

Global News reached out to Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s office and to AHS for comment on the mayors’ offer but did not receive a response.

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

In the summer, 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 R.M. 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. However, 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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For months, the mayors of the municipalities that will be impacted by consolidation voiced their opposition to the move, prompting a meeting with Shandro to discuss the issue.

The mayors have argued that dispatchers in their communities 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.

“We feel strongly that our integrated fire and EMS system provides the best service to our residents, as efficiently as possible,” Lethbridge mayor Chris Spearman said Tuesday. “So strongly, that we are willing to invest municipal funding to maintain local EMS dispatch and preserve our fully integrated system.

“The loss of EMS dispatch in Lethbridge would come at a much higher cost to our community. We would need to invest millions to alter our system in order to maintain the current level of service, losing much of the efficiencies we have today.”

“We have expressed to the premier our offer to pay for this service — stopping at nothing to keep EMS dispatch within the region,” said Wood Buffalo mayor Don Scott. “Enabling us to pay for this service at $660,000 annually will mitigate the threat that consolidation poses to our residents, oilsands operators, First Nations and Métis communities.”

In a letter addressed to the mayors in October, Shandro said “the plain fact is that dispatch and overall response times are similar across the province” and reiterated that the consolidation effort was not driven by cost savings.

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“It will result in savings of several million dollars a year, but not one dollar will be removed from the EMS budget,” he wrote in his letter. “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.”

Some officials with the municipalities affected by the decision have argued consolidation will not improve response times and may in fact delay them.

The move to consolidate dispatch services is expected to take effect on Jan. 12.

READ MORE: City council salaries, municipal census among items seeing cuts on day 2 of Lethbridge budget review 

“In a very challenging economic time, these are not easy decisions,” Spearman said. “I hope this commitment sends yet another strong message to the provincial government about how vitally important this is to our city.”

–With files from Global News Radio 770 CHQR’s Adam Toy

Watch below: Some Global News videos about EMS dispatch services in Alberta.

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