Lengthy response times for EMS in Calgary have emergency officials raising concerns and calling for more resources after several red alerts were issued over the weekend.
Typically, red alerts are issued when there are no ambulances within a jurisdiction able to respond to emergency calls, which requires units from other surrounding municipalities to respond.
According to the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) — the union representing paramedics in the province — red alerts are becoming more and more common.
“We are seeing (red alerts) as a normal daily operation currently in this province,” HSAA president Mike Parker told Global News. “Calgary will circle down to zero ambulances available, drawing in Cochrane, Canmore, drawing in Kananaskis and Fort MacLeod…
“Which leaves all of those communities exposed with no coverage.”
The HSAA has been monitoring red alerts throughout the province and posting them online on their Twitter account.
The data is provided voluntarily by the union’s membership and not released by Alberta Health Services, according to an HSAA spokesperson.
According to that data, there were at least 18 red alerts issued in and around the Calgary area between Dec. 3 and 5, requiring ambulances to respond from the 15 surrounding municipalities including Banff, Vulcan, Olds, Kananaskis and Black Diamond.
The union said there were at least six red alerts issued within the City of Calgary over the weekend, four of which were on Saturday.
Luck of the draw
The lengthy wait times in Calgary are a concern for Marcello Di Cintio, whose 95-year-old grandmother waited an hour for an ambulance to respond on Saturday after a fall.
“My grandmother spent the better part of an hour lying on the tile floor of my aunt’s kitchen,” Di Cintio said. “An hour is too much time for a response that’s supposed to be an emergency.”
Di Cintio told Global News the paramedics were apologetic once they arrived, and his family telling EMS dispatchers the situation wasn’t urgent because she was conscious and appeared uninjured may have contributed to the delay.
Although his grandmother is okay, Di Cintio said he is concerned that similar delays could have much different outcomes.
“She’s unbreakable, sure, but part of me, the morbid part of me perhaps imagines could that have been her last hour on the floor of a kitchen?” Di Cintio said. “And that breaks my heart.”
In a statement to Global News, Alberta Health Services said the response for Di Ciento’s grandmother was longer than it should be, despite calls being prioritized “according to the severity of the medical condition or injury described by a caller at the time of a 911 call.”
An AHS spokesperson said EMS has been dealing with a rise in calls in recent months and staffing issues have also contributed to delays.
“EMS is continuing to see an unprecedented increase in emergency calls over the last several months, due to several combined factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid concerns and emergency calls related to people returning to normal levels of activity,” AHS spokesperson James Wood said.
“All call types have increased and staff illness and fatigue are also contributing to challenges in the EMS system.
“We are ensuring that the most critical patients are prioritized for receiving immediate care.”
According to AHS, red alerts are a concern “even if they last a short amount of time” and the health authority uses strategies such as re-deploying units from other communities as well as deferring non-urgent transfers, deploying supervisors and using single paramedic response units.
‘Hasn’t seen in his 20-year career’
But the delays are concerning for the Alberta Firefighters Association. Its president, Matt Osborne, said staffing and dispatch issues have triggered the current situation.
It’s a situation he said he hasn’t seen in his 20-year career as a firefighter.
“This has been 10 years of a problem that’s led to where we are now with extreme shortages, extreme pressures on paramedics, on ambulances, pressures on firefighters responding to critical medical emergencies,” Osborne said.
“It’s almost like a game of dominoes, because it’s not one piece that’s led to this.”
The delays come after changes to how EMS is dispatched in several communities across the province.
The decision now has 911 dispatch calls in those communities go through provincial dispatch centres instead of the same centres that dispatch local fire and police. Before finalizing the consolidation, AHS said the move would save money and improve patient care.
Calgary’s mayor said the situation is a concern, and the pushback against AHS would continue for her and her colleagues in other affected municipalities.
“By taking this new model of dispatch, we’re actually doing a disservice to people in this province and people in this city,” Jyoti Gondek said. “The mayors of the cities of this province are not willing to tolerate this and we will be incredibly vocal about it.”
“It’s unacceptable, we’re not serving our citizens by doing this,” she added.
According to Parker, the HSAA plans to continue to advocate for more paramedics and ambulances to help lower response times.
“Will there be an event someday that will overwhelm the system? Yes — we can’t schedule for that,” Parker said.
“What we can do is ensure that there’s enough paramedics on the streets in Edmonton and Calgary to take care of our citizens and keep them safe. And that keeps our paramedics safe.”
According to AHS, the number of paramedics in Alberta has increased from 2,659 in 2019 to 2,891 so far in 2021.
“We recognize that the increase in 911 call volume to EMS likely also has an impact on our first responder partners,” Wood said in a statement. “We value these partnerships and are in touch with colleagues in police departments, fire departments and our Medical First Response partners on a regular basis.”
–With files from Adam Toy, Global News