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EMS dispatch consolidation to result in call flow interruption, response delays: Calgary officials

An ambulance arrives after a mourner collapsed at the funeral for Jordan Segura, one of the victims of an April 15 mass stabbing attack, in Calgary on Monday, April 21, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal

The day after four Alberta mayors made a final plea to the premier to pause EMS dispatch consolidation, a Calgary committee heard about some challenges city officials expect when the province makes the switch on Jan. 26.

“Recently, Alberta Health Services advised city administration that the current call flow will be interrupted, which will potentially delay emergency response (to) citizens and jeopardize first responders’ safety,” Richard Hinse, director of Calgary Community Standards, told the priorities and finance committee Tuesday.

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

The interruption happens when a call to 911 needs more than just EMS or police.

Currently, Calgary 911 operators co-evaluate every call, with operators from police, fire and EMS simultaneously gathering relevant information about the call for an appropriate response from any of those three responders, and then are able to simultaneously dispatch whatever is needed.

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Once EMS dispatch for Calgary is consolidated into three AHS provincial call centres, that co-evaluation will not happen and dispatch of those emergency services will be sequential.

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As EMS dispatch changes in Alberta come into effect, mayors ask government to reconsider – Jan 11, 2021

“What will happen after Jan. 26 is when you say someone’s been stabbed, the person who’s answering the phone needs to quickly determine, ‘Is this an active crime scene or a medical emergency primarily?’” Mayor Naheed Nenshi explained. “Of course it’s both of those things.

“So if they determine it’s an active crime scene, then (the call) will go to police dispatch. Police will go through everything and send police officers. And then — and only then will it go to AHS to build their own call to send paramedics. And at the end of that, it will come back to fire to send firefighters.”

Nenshi said that will result in a “significantly longer” wait for people needing emergency response.

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The mayor also said it could put police officers in danger if their dispatcher hasn’t been able to ask the person calling into 911 questions that are relevant to policing and safety.

Read more: As EMS dispatch changes in Alberta come into effect, mayors ask province to reconsider

On Monday, AHS spokesperson James Wood confirmed to Global News that AHS EMS dispatchers “notify police directly and immediately.”

“AHS EMS has a law enforcement response plan that determines what call types require automatic notification of law enforcement,” he said in an email.

City officials who have been working with AHS on the EMS dispatch transition haven’t seen that plan.

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“I’m not aware of it,” Hinse said. “I’m not saying that it isn’t there, but with our transition team, we have not been able to nail down what are the calls that they will, by policy, involve the Calgary Police Service (CPS) or any police service in Alberta.

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“So I’m not aware of that policy and procedures that says, ‘This is exactly what will happen when there’s a police incident.’ And then defining what a police incident is is critical in this too.

“We’ve certainly not worked with them on this.”

While fire and EMS response have computer-assisted dispatch systems that are able to communicate with each other to facilitate sharing of call information, CPS computer systems are not compatible with EMS or fire in sharing information.

“That is not currently available,” Nenshi said. “It’s turned out that it has been very difficult over the years.”

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

Hinse told the committee that Calgary 911 receives 41 calls per day that require response from more than one emergency service.

Steve Buick, press secretary for Alberta’s Health minister, told Global News Monday that Tyler Shandro explained the reasoning for the change in a letter to Mayor Nenshi and his other mayoral colleagues.

“Integrating dispatch with the overall EMS system will align the four cities with best practices in the rest of Alberta, other provinces, and other countries like the UK,” Buick wrote in an email.

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

“I have used all the channels I have to communicate this directly to the premier and to the health minister,” Nenshi said Tuesday. “The premier has not responded directly on this and the health minister has said, ‘I’ll look into it.’ But that was days ago.”

Domestic violence response at risk

How this could affect the response to domestic violence calls was a concern Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell raised.

“Of course domestics make up a large portion of these calls,” said Hinse, a former CPS officer. “These domestics are both assaults, physical assaults that have a medical situation that has to be dealt with and, of course, it has a situation where law enforcement is required.

CPS Deputy Chief Chad Tawfik confirmed that police often attend domestic violence calls in tandem with EMS, saying the “evaluation component is important to assess what exactly happened on scene.”

“It’s unjustifiable,” Farrell responded. “It’s unforgivable. And I’m just so disappointed and disgusted.

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“But I think it’s falling on deaf ears — it seems to be a trend.”

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