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‘This mistake is entirely preventable’: Alberta mayors push for pause in EMS dispatch consolidation

Mayors Chris Spearman, Naheed Nenshi, Tara Veer and Don Scott appear in a virtual press conference on Jan. 11, 2021 to call for Alberta Health Services to pause EMS dispatch consolidation, set to begin in Red Deer and Lethbridge on Jan. 12, 2021. Global News

On the eve of EMS dispatch of two Alberta cities being switched over to Alberta Health Services, four mayors are asking Premier Jason Kenney to pause the change until after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

The mayors of Lethbridge, Red Deer, Calgary and Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo fear the consolidation into provincial dispatch centres will reduce the speed and quality of emergency medical services in their cities and provincewide.

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

“It truly is a matter of life and death for every Albertan — not just for the communities that we represent and stand before today, but certainly for all 4.4 million of us,” Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer said Monday.

Planned changes to EMS dispatch over the month of January directly affect 1.9 million Albertans, but will have cascading effects across the province according to Veer.

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Click to play video: 'Alberta mayors voice frustration following EMS dispatch decision' Alberta mayors voice frustration following EMS dispatch decision
Alberta mayors voice frustration following EMS dispatch decision – Oct 20, 2020

“The province has not heard us on this issue and they are no longer responding to us on this issue,” Veer said. “They are not putting patients and people first, which is why we have continued to appeal for the active support of our citizens in this fight for retaining ambulance dispatch locally.”

On Monday, the mayors repeated their concerns about the change, including increased response times, incorrect dispatch locations for EMS and decline in patient outcomes. And they raised a new concern: unclear procedures on when to dispatch police.

Read more: ‘It will cost lives’: Alberta mayors continue fight against EMS dispatch changes

“In the last week or two, AHS has informed us that they will not be implementing best practices in terms of dealing with police,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said.

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“We’ve been informed that there is no plan, nor is there a plan to have a plan for what we call co-evaluation, which means that the police, the fire and the EMS dispatchers … simultaneously collect the information from the caller,” Calgary’s mayor said, calling co-evaluation a “gold standard” of emergency response.

“We’ve also been informed that AHS will not transfer callers to the Calgary Police Service if police are required. Instead, (the AHS EMS dispatcher) will inform Calgary 911 if they deem it appropriate.”

Nenshi pointed to his conversation with a Calgary 911 operator who managed the call on Dec. 31, 2020, an evening whose events ended in the death of CPS Sgt. Andrew Harnett.

“She did an amazing job, but she had to coordinate three different agencies, all focused on a life-saving goal, and we will lose that. And that is deeply problematic for me.”

In a statement to Global News, an AHS spokesperson said AHS EMS dispatchers would call police immediately and directly if needed for safety of the public and paramedics.

“A paramedic, ECO (emergency communications officer) or 911 caller can request police assistance at any time during an event,” the statement said. “Additionally, AHS EMS has a Law Enforcement Response Plan that determines what call types require automatic notification of law enforcement.”

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The cities had an integrated system where calls for fire crews, EMS and often police were dispatched from the same call centre.

AHS began implementing a consolidated EMS dispatch system in 2011, centred on a computer-aided dispatch and information-sharing system. An online FAQ published in October says the system is “is fast, reliable and eliminates errors which could be communicated by passing on information verbally.”

According to AHS, EMS dispatch will be consolidated in Red Deer and Lethbridge on Jan. 12, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Jan. 19 and in Calgary on Jan. 26.

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

More than 2,500 people in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo sent letters to the provincial government about the planned change to EMS dispatch. Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said he and his citizens have yet to receive answers to their questions.

Scott directly addressed some scenarios to the premier.

“Premier Kenney, we need to know what will happen when a major vehicle collision north of Fort McMurray happens this winter,” Scott said.

“Will our mutual aid EMS partners at the closest oilsands site respond to the emergency, like in our current model? Or will the next closest ambulance need to come from Timberley, which is 15 minutes away?

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“How will the ambulances be dispatched to our remote first nation communities such as Fort Mackay? Currently, ambulances arrive quickly after we dispatch them from oilsands mutual aid partners at our nearby oil sands sites. Under the new model, will residents in Fort Mackay need to wait until the next closest ambulance arrives from Lac La Biche, which is three hours away?”

Read more: Nenshi demands apology from chief paramedic for ‘defamatory’ comments on EMS dispatch concerns

According to the Ernst & Young report published in 2019 recommending changes to provincial health care, the province would realize savings of around $5 million after consolidating the final four cities into the three-site EMS dispatch system.

The cities asked the province about compensating the province for EMS dispatch to allow those operators to remain in the cities’ 911 dispatch centres. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo council approved $660,000 from their budget for provincial EMS dispatch. Red Deer offered to pay $1.2 million. Lethbridge was ready to pay $1.2 million. And Calgary’s bill was around $6 million — which Calgary declined to pay.

Click to play video: 'Lethbridge city council takes pay cut as budget deliberations continue' Lethbridge city council takes pay cut as budget deliberations continue
Lethbridge city council takes pay cut as budget deliberations continue – Nov 24, 2020

“Paying $1.2 million will prevent our city from having to spend $5 million in additional costs related to mitigating risk and to ensure we maintain the same service level to our community after EMS dispatch is removed,” outgoing Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said.

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“These costs will be put on our city and on our taxpayers as we lose efficiencies currently realized within our fully integrated system.

“We strongly believe that our existing system works well and provides the best patient outcomes.”

Red Deer’s mayor said she hopes AHS and the Alberta government does not make the same mistakes other provinces has made in consolidating EMS dispatch.

“This mistake is entirely preventable,” Veer said. “The experience of other Canadian provinces who consolidated dispatch proves that this change will fundamentally dismantle a public service that we once led the way in Canada on.”

Late Monday the Health minister’s office responded to a Global News request to the premier’s office regarding the mayors’ concerns.

Steve Buick, the Health minister’s press secretary, outlined the timeline of communications between the ministry and mayors.

“We respect the mayors’ concerns and have worked hard to answer them,” Buick wrote in an email.

“Integrating dispatch into the health system in the remaining four municipalities makes sense and will serve patients better.”

Buick also said all savings realized from the consolidation will be “reinvested into improving ground ambulance services.”

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