Wood Buffalo council passes motion to defy Alberta’s consolidation of EMS dispatch services

WATCH ABOVE: Some Global News videos about EMS dispatch services in Alberta.

Wood Buffalo councillors unanimously passed a motion Tuesday night that calls for the municipality’s emergency communications centre to no longer transfer 911 calls to a provincial dispatch centre run by Alberta Health Services.

During the meeting, council heard from Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz that there have been delays since the consolidation in January. Butz said staff have had to intervene in more than 20 per cent of calls.

The motion, put forward by Mayor Don Scott, is the latest shot fired in a battle between the province and four of its largest municipalities — Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo — over AHS’ decision to consolidate EMS dispatch services.

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

The motion reads “that the municipality provide notice to Alberta Health Services that the RMWB 911 Emergency Communications Centre will no longer transfer the 911 calls to the AHS Provincial Dispatch Centre,” according to a tweet by the municipality.

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Global News reached out to both AHS and Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s office for reaction to the council vote. The health minister’s office did not respond but AHS issued a brief statement.

“AHS EMS has become aware of a motion passed by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo regarding 911 EMS dispatch,” AHS said in an email Tuesday night. “We have not received any information directly from RMWB.

“AHS will do all it can to ensure patients are not put at risk.”

A spokesperson for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said Scott and Butz will hold a virtual news conference on Wednesday morning to elaborate on Wood Buffalo’s plans for 911 calls.

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

In October, Shandro decided not to block AHS’ plan to further consolidate EMS dispatch services despite vocal opposition from mayors who pleaded with the minister to intervene.

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 the past Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Wood Buffalo, ambulances and fire services were dispatched through municipal centres.

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The changes, which officially took effect last month, brought the four municipalities in line with what was already done in 60 per cent of the province and still see calls go to a municipal dispatch centre.

However, if EMS is needed, calls are transferred to an AHS dispatcher at one of three call centres across the province. That person then contacts paramedics. If fire is also needed, the municipal dispatcher has to be contacted to then reach out to firefighters.

For months, the mayors of the municipalities impacted by consolidation voiced their opposition to the move, prompting a meeting with Shandro to discuss the issue.

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

The mayors 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.

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,” adding that the consolidation effort was not driven by cost savings.

“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.

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“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.

Earlier this month, the mayors of the municipalities that were the last to join the provincial EMS dispatch system said they are now calling for an inquiry into an outage at an AHS dispatch centre on the same day Calgary was brought online and also for a third-party evaluation of dispatch consolidation.

READ MORE: 4 Alberta mayors call for inquiry into EMS system outage 

“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 at the time.

“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.

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The mayors said a Jan. 26 outage at the Southern Communications Centre in Calgary — one of three centres in Alberta that can dispatch ambulances anywhere in the province — lasted 72 minutes.

AHS chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck disputed the length of the outage and said it was 42 minutes.

“This outage is completely unrelated to dispatch consolidation and would have impacted the relevant municipal dispatch systems in exactly the same way,” he said.

“It is wildly inaccurate to list the outage to consolidation.”

–With files from 770 CHQR’s Adam Toy

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