In the continuing saga of Alberta mayors versus the recently implemented consolidated emergency dispatch system, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has taken a bold step.
On Tuesday, councillors unanimously passed a motion to no longer transfer 911 calls to a provincial dispatch centre run by Alberta Health Services.
“There are circumstances when acts of resistance and defiance I believe are absolutely necessary,” RMWB Mayor Don Scott said Wednesday during a news conference.
“When decisions are made by a level of government that put the health of our residents in this region at risk, then that’s one of them,” Scott said.
He goes on to say a degradation in services is what prompted the motion and he has no regrets when it comes to facing any possible repercussions from the Alberta government.
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.
The region’s fire chief, Jody Butz, says they’ve been noticing delays in response times due to the centralized dispatchers not being able to correctly identify addresses.
During the meeting, Butz said there have been delays since the consolidation in January. Butz also said staff have had to intervene in more than 20 per cent of calls.
During the news conference on Wednesday, he listed a general example of a delay one of its citizens experienced while calling for help during a moment of medical distress.
“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,” Butz said.
The concern around delayed response times is one that is also being echoed by Marc Rathwell, the chief of Fire and Emergency Services in the City of Lethbridge.
“We’ve had a few other calls where north and south seem to be a bit of an issue, sending crews to a south side address, when it’s actually on the north side of the city,” he explained.
“Again, familiarity with our community has been a strength when you have local dispatch.”
Rathwell said communication with AHS, in regards to their reports highlighting delays caused by the consolidation system, have been “slow and cumbersome,” coupled with “a lack of understanding” when it comes to comprehending the functionality of their prior integrated system.
Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman says he shares the same frustrations as his Wood Buffalo counterparts.
“I am prepared to bring forward a motion,” Spearman stated.
“But before I do that, I want to work with the chief and our administration, our solicitor. We want to look into all aspects of this and research it thoroughly,” he said.
Spearman said Lethbridge has reached out to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro with its concerns, however the city has heard nothing back from the province.
He also said council will have more to say about the issue during its next meeting on Feb. 23.
In a statement to Global News, AHS said it learned Tuesday night of the RMWB’s intention to no longer transfer 911 calls to AHS EMS dispatch.
“Our entire focus is on ensuring residents of Wood Buffalo get the care they need when they call 911,” the statement reads.
“AHS has been doing this for more than two-thirds of the province for the last decade. It is what we do, an integral part of our mandate to deliver publicly funded health care.
“We are concerned that the intention signaled by the municipality could adversely affect patient care. We’re currently seeking further information.
“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. 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.
“AHS has looked into every event that has been raised to date, and there have been no issues or intervention required by the municipality. As of this afternoon, AHS is continuing to receive and dispatch 911 calls.
“No information has been brought forward to show that dispatch consolidation has resulted in any adverse events, response delays or negative outcomes. Quite the opposite in fact – since consolidation first occurred over a decade ago, AHS EMS has successfully and safely dispatched over half a million calls each year.
“EMS always responds immediately to any urgent or life threatening 911 call. We dispatch ambulances in the same way municipalities did before: 911 calls are handled in exactly the same way today as they were prior to the transition of dispatch to AHS.
“AHS EMS dispatch also has access to exactly the same mapping and location data as the municipalities did prior to transition.
“Ambulance services in each community are being delivered by the same local paramedics who have always provided this service. These local professionals know the streets, locations and neighbourhoods and will continue working with EMS dispatch to respond to any emergency in every local community.
“Our provincial dispatch system works well, it is effective and it has the best interests of all Albertans at heart.”
With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich and Allison Bench