Wood Buffalo mayor says he stands by decision to ‘defy and resist’ Alberta’s EMS consolidation

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray defies Alberta EMS dispatch consolidation'
Fort McMurray defies Alberta EMS dispatch consolidation
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo councillors in Fort McMurray are digging their heels in and pulling out of Alberta's consolidated dispatch centres. On Tuesday night, they voted unanimously to stop transferring 911 calls to Alberta Health Services. As Nicole Stillger reports, the mayor says he's standing by the decision even if it costs him his job – Feb 10, 2021

The mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo had a strong message for the province Wednesday, as he defended the move by his council to defy recent changes to how EMS dispatch works in the province.

“There are circumstances when acts of defiance and resistance are absolutely necessary,” Mayor Don Scott said. “When decisions are made by a level of government that put the health of our residents at risk in that region, then that’s one of them.

“We need to resist and defy that decision. And that’s exactly what my council did last night.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, RMWB Council unanimously supported a motion by Mayor Scott, to “provide notice to Alberta Health Services that the RMWB 911 Emergency Communications Centre will no longer transfer the 911 caller to AHS Provincial Dispatch Centre.”

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Scott said Wednesday that he believes this move should come as “no surprise” to Alberta Health Services.

“We have been telling them for seven months that if they went through with the transition that they proposed, that there would be a reduction in service that would put our residents’ health at risk,” Scott said. “We made what I considered to be a strong decision, and we stand by it.

“I challenge the provincial government to remove me as the mayor. I believe in this cause enough that I stand by it completely.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta mayors ask for investigation into EMS dispatch'
Alberta mayors ask for investigation into EMS dispatch

Jody Butz, the fire chief for the region, said there have been major issues since the service switched to the provincial dispatch plan on Jan. 19. He said local staff have been monitoring the transition and have had to intervene due to errors, mainly around local addresses.

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“When we witnessed or observed glaring errors, we were intervening in some of those calls,” Butz said. “The number of calls with degradation of service is actually more than (20 per cent). But the amount of calls that we intervened (in) was 20 per cent. That is far unacceptable for delivering an EMS service.

“We had a young caller, call 911 for a friend. That young caller was transferred across this province three different times. And that young caller had to give their address six different times.”

Global News has reached out to the provincial government but has not yet received a response.

Alberta Health Services said Wednesday it was “concerned that the intention signaled by the municipality could adversely affect patient care.”

“The municipality has not provided any evidence to AHS to suggest that the recent consolidation of EMS dispatch has led to any delays or inappropriate responses,” said a statement from Darren Sandbeck, the chief paramedic and senior provincial director for AHS EMS.

“In addition, the municipality has not provided any information that would back up their public claims that they are having to intervene in specific EMS calls due to integration of dispatch,” he said.

Sandbeck added that AHS continued to receive and dispatch 911 calls for the community as of Wednesday.

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“No information has been brought forward to show that dispatch consolidation has resulted in any adverse events, response delays or negative outcomes.”

Click to play video: 'As EMS dispatch changes in Alberta come into effect, mayors ask government to reconsider'
As EMS dispatch changes in Alberta come into effect, mayors ask government to reconsider

Scott said the decision was a last resort after failed attempts to work with the province on the issue.

“We’ve engaged in every way that we know possible, and we have been met with total resistance,” he said. “And today, we are sending what I believe is a strong message back as a council.

“I stand by it completely, no matter the political consequences.”

The Fort McMurray region isn’t alone in its opposition of the consolidation. Calgary, Red Deer, and Lethbridge have also spoke out against AHS’ decision to consolidate EMS dispatch services.

The dispatch 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.

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However, what municipalities are taking issue with is if EMS is needed, calls are then transferred to an AHS dispatcher at one of three provincial centres. That person will contact paramedics. However, if fire is needed, the municipality is contacted again and they will reach out to firefighters.

For months, the mayors of the municipalities impacted by consolidation voiced their opposition to the move, arguing 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.

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

Butz said Wednesday he believes having the municipality return to managing its own dispatch will improve the safety for local residents.

“We will reduce minutes, not seconds, (with) our system that we’ve been doing since 1979,” Butz said.

Mayor Scott also implied on Wednesday that other municipalities may also defy the changes.

–with files from Phil Heidenreich, Global News

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