Four Alberta mayors whose municipalities were the last to join the provincial EMS dispatch system are calling for an inquiry into an outage at an Alberta Health Services dispatch centre on the same day Calgary was brought online.
And the same mayors are calling for a third-party evaluation of dispatch consolidation.
“Since Jan. 12 of this year — when the dispatch consolidations began in our municipalities — through to Jan. 26 — when the City of Calgary came on stream with the provincial consolidation — our communities and emergency patients have experienced delays and disruption in dispatch times, and first responders have been exposed to unnecessary additional risk,” Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer said Monday.
“Our worst fears around the centralization of the EMS dispatch have been coming true,” Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said.
“Not even 13 hours after Calgary transitioned, we had a major communications breakdown of the system,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said.
Richard Hinse, the City of Calgary’s manager of community standards, told Calgary City Council Monday morning of a call for an ambulance in the city’s downtown that took 16 minutes due to an outage in AHS’ computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system.
The call to 911 took place at around 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 26 and involved a man passed out in downtown Calgary. Calgary 911 passed the call to AHS to send an ambulance. When the Calgary 911 operator called AHS back because AHS didn’t call for a fire truck — as is standard on these calls — the Calgary 911 operator found out that the AHS CAD system was down.
“So about 16 minutes later, again, they phoned back and said they did not have the call in the downtown core,” Hinse said.
Hinse said when AHS called back, their CAD was up and running and an ambulance was dispatched to assist the man.
According to the mayors of Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Fort McMurray, the outage affected the CAD interface between EMS and fire departments, GPS tracking of ambulances, access to ambulance mobile phone numbers and mobile data terminals.
AHS did not notify emergency dispatchers in those four municipalities about the outage at the time and has not provided reasons for the outage.
“Our experience on this significant outage demonstrates that AHS is not transparent and does not share information,” the mayors wrote in a letter to Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
“Our emergency dispatchers should have been contacted as soon as the incident occurred, with an explanation as to why it occurred, and what mitigation measures were put in place.”
The mayors said the Jan. 26 outage at the Southern Communications Centre in Calgary lasted between 10:40 p.m. and 11:42 p.m., a 72-minute outage. The Southern Communications Centre is one of three in the province that can dispatch ambulances anywhere in Alberta.
AHS chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck disputed the length of that outage.
“On January the 26th, AHS EMS experienced a 42-minute outage that impacted our computer aided dispatch system,” Sandbeck said. “This outage is completely unrelated to dispatch consolidation and would have impacted the relevant municipal dispatch systems in exactly the same way.
“It is wildly inaccurate to list the outage to consolidation.”
Sandbeck said that during the outage, AHS started “downtime procedures” to make sure calls were answered “in a timely manner,” saying more than 20 calls came in during the outage. Only two calls were delayed: a non-emergency call to a Calgary continuing care centre and a non-emergency call in Lac La Biche, Alta.
“CAD outages happen from time to time, including before dispatch consolidation,” Sandbeck said. “They happen in every jurisdiction where such systems are used and our teams respond to them in the same way as other jurisdictions do.
“We are working closely with our vendor to find out why this outage occurred.”
Sandbeck could not answer how much downtime the CAD system experienced last year.
“We’re working with AHS now to understand what happened, what’s the best practices about notifying the partners and what we’re going to do in the future,” Hinse said about the outage.
Sandbeck said all of the municipalities have been consulted following the consolidation.
“Those conversations continue to be ongoing with the municipalities post transition, with the exception of the City of Calgary,” Sandbeck said. “The City of Calgary has not engaged in post transition meetings for us to address events that they raise.”
Nenshi said he had not received an invitation to a post-transition meeting.
“One of the challenges we’ve had here since the beginning is AHS, for a science-driven organization, is remarkably shy about sharing data and information,” Calgary’s mayor said.
Nenshi said he hopes that Calgarians will not have to make two calls to 911 to get responses from two emergency departments.
“We have to figure out a better mechanism than that.”
Global News requested comment from the health minister’s office but did not hear from them at press time.