‘We’re on our knees’: Alberta EMS union says system on the verge of collapse

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Alberta EMS union says system on verge of collapse
WATCH: The union that represents thousands of health-care workers across Alberta is speaking out over what it says is a lack of staff. As Sarah Offin reports, the union says it’s an increasingly desperate situation. – May 10, 2022

Alberta’s paramedic shortage has pushed the emergency response system past its tipping point, according to the union representing thousands of paramedics and health-care workers in the province.

In a tweet on Monday morning, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) reported that 40 emergency calls in Calgary were waiting for an ambulance to be dispatched on May 3, which prompted union staff to issue a “deep red alert” for the area.

Typically, red alerts are issued when there are no ambulances within a jurisdiction able to respond to emergency calls or for incidents that can potentially overwhelm local hospitals.

HSAA president Michael Parker said the situation is so dire that paramedics are running out of ways to describe the situation. Red alerts used to be extremely rare but now they’re becoming more common and more intense. Deep red alerts were unheard of until now.

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“Communication teams are disconnecting and hanging up on people to get to the next call because it is so intense… the fact that there are 40 calls waiting tells you what’s going on (in EMS),” Parker told 770 CHQR on Monday.

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

Paramedics are also stretched thin because they are overworked and understaffed. Approximately 300 to 400 shifts are left unfilled at the beginning of every week and many paramedics are forced into mandatory overtime every single shift, Parker said.

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

As a result, teams are forced to hop between calls without being able to decompress between incidents. Some paramedics don’t even have time to eat or go to the bathroom.

“There are zero additional resources to compensate for the increase in calls and our hospitals have been depleted over the last 10 to 15 years. The entire health-care system is in a critical state right now,” Parker said.

“The canary in the coal mine is the paramedics on the front lines today, and let’s be clear on what happens to canaries in coal mines – they die.”

Read more: Alberta paramedic union sounds the alarm over ambulance resources

In a statement to 770 CHQR on Monday, Alberta Health Services said there are measures in place to help address these pressures. An AHS spokesperson said 66 new paramedics were hired since January: nine temporary full-time and 57 casual staff.

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“Calgary is continuing to experience a high volume of 911 calls while also seeing an increase in hospital demand,” the statement read. “EMS has brought on additional staff and ambulances, is deploying supervisors and delaying some non-urgent transfers.”

However, these concerns are not new. Parker said the emergency response system has been in a dire state for the past decade and the union’s pleas have fallen mostly on deaf ears.

He also said Alberta’s new 10-point plan to help relieve pressures on the EMS system isn’t helping because communities are still overwhelmed and understaffed. The majority of new hires are on casual or part-time contracts without benefits nor guaranteed hours which does nothing to solve staffing issues, according to Parker.

Many paramedics are choosing to leave the industry entirely.

Read more: Alberta sees historic demand for paramedics: AHS

“I agree that we need to keep rural units in their rural communities. I agree with that… but (AHS) can’t get people. They can’t keep the people they have, and it’s not getting better.

“Our frontline paramedics have been given the utmost trust to ensure that we are safe and on the front lines to get to you urgently… but we have no space right now and they are running our EMS system to the ground,” Parker said.

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770 CHQR reached out to Alberta’s Ministry of Health but did not receive a response in time for publication. The story will be updated once a response is received.

Read more: Patient dies while waiting for care at Red Deer hospital emergency department

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