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Alberta EMS funding details released; union says there’s no staff

FILE: An ambulance travels along 14 Street N.W. in Calgary in response to an emergency call. Global News

More communities in Alberta should be getting better EMS service. That’s according to details on increased funding to emergency medical services in Alberta released on Thursday.

Of the $64 million increase announced in February’s budget, $28 million will be going to adding more ambulances and crews, $14 million will go to improving working hours in 14 different rural communities, and $22 million will be going to non-ambulance patient transfers, ground ambulance contracts and an integrated operations centre in Calgary – similar to the one in Edmonton.

Calgary, along with Edmonton, will receive five more ambulances for each of the next two fiscal years, totaling 20 between the two biggest cities.

Lethbridge and Red Deer will see an additional 12-hour shift per day for the same time period.

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The “hours of work” project, designed to adjust work hours, shifts and scheduling to lessen fatigue among paramedics, will be getting $14 million for 14 communities: Fort Macleod, Lamont, Slave Lake, Wainwright, Castor, Canmore, Boyle, Vermilion, Drayton Valley, Valleyview, Drumheller, Bassano, Two Hills and St. Paul.

And in an update to the 10-point plan announced on Jan. 24, the province said the Metro Response Plan rolled out last month saw progress: fewer ambulances are being pulled into major, neighbouring metropolises from the communities of Strathcona County, St. Albert, Spruce Grove, Leduc, Beaumont, Calmar, Josephburg, Airdrie and Cochrane.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shared the announcement Thursday morning at the spring meeting of Alberta Municipalities leaders’ caucus.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 calls swamping Alberta EMS response prompts government action'
COVID-19 calls swamping Alberta EMS response prompts government action

He said the 12 per cent increase in EMS funding was “just the start.”

“We’ll stick with it, and (Health) Minister Copping — who’s here — will support (EMS) and hold them accountable for delivering real improvements. We need it.

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“The point is we’ve listened and we know EMS is important to you, to all of us, to your constituents, the people you serve. This will help ease system pressure and continue to make EMS more responsive to communities needs across the province in a way that makes sense to paramedics and EMS support staff.”

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In a speech to the same meeting of Albertan municipal leaders, Opposition municipal affairs critic Joe Ceci made a campaign-style commitment that if the NDP were elected in spring 2023, that party would invest in public health care in local communities.

“We will fix EMS, iron out the issues from the move to consolidated services, and put more ambulances on the road,” Ceci’s speech read.

In a statement, Copping reiterated the commitment to make sure EMS has the resources they need.

“EMS has been experiencing historic call volume and staffing pressures and we’re taking action by significantly increasing EMS funding to improve capacity and access,” the statement read.

Click to play video: 'Airdrie boy with broken leg rushed to hospital in firetruck after ambulances unavailable'
Airdrie boy with broken leg rushed to hospital in firetruck after ambulances unavailable

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), said the announcement of more ambulances missed a key piece: the crews to operate them.

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“We don’t have the people to staff the trucks that we have, never mind the additional units that they’re offering,” Parker said.

On top of the high demand nationwide for healthcare professionals, working conditions in Alberta for paramedics and 911 operators aren’t very attractive.

Read more: At least 6 EMS red alerts in Calgary over the weekend caused by staff shortages

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Parker said both paramedics and operators are assigned so many calls they’re often not able to take meal or bathroom breaks, on top of having to respond to non-stop calls and forced overtime. And for paramedics, it’s not uncommon for them to return to their garage long after their shift was scheduled to end.

“It’s true that the heart of this EMS crisis is that the policies of the employer of AHS has treated workers as expendable, rather than highly valued professionals that they truly are. And we are seeing the results of this with a high rate of burnout and flight from our professions,” Parker said.

Click to play video: 'Alberta paramedics union concerned with increase in calls, ‘red alert’ ambulance shortages'
Alberta paramedics union concerned with increase in calls, ‘red alert’ ambulance shortages

HSAA data showed ambulances in Calgary with no crews available for a shift occurred more than 3200 times in 2021. In January 2022, that occurred in Edmonton 348 times.

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He added that new paramedics aren’t being trained up fast enough to match the numbers leaving the profession, a phenomenon that’s been going on for more than a decade.

“There are no new people coming in because, as the colleges are reporting, for every one that gets graduated, we lose one and we haven’t been able to move to a plus one in over 10 years – they’re not sticking around in the industry.”

Parker called on three main pieces needed to improve the province’s EMS system: better retention of paramedics and emergency communications officers, better recruitment for those same positions, and to reinstate harm reduction programs to ease the burden on EMS.

“These folks that were using safe consumption sites as a support network are now finding themselves just in the community,” Parker said. “And that increased workload that (closing supervised consumption sites) is creating because they don’t have supports anymore, and they continue to cycle in and out of an emergency department with no support.”

“An E.R. and a paramedic unit is not where these folks need their assistance. They needed it through safe consumption sites,” he added.

But the HSAA president did see potential improvement in working conditions for rural paramedics from the “hours for work” program.

“It’s a good start, for sure. I look forward to seeing what their plans actually look like because they have nothing concrete at the moment.”

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