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Alberta promises boost to ailing provincial EMS service

Alberta said it will provide more support for a beleaguered EMS system, with a 10-point AHS plan to create capacity.

This announcement comes as new information about so-called ‘red-alerts’ was released by the Official Opposition. It also comes a week after the union representing paramedics and other health workers called for more resources.

Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping said a recent incident involving four calls in Airdrie brought to full light the challenges of EMS. He said four calls came in from Airdrie when Calgary services were occupied.

“This was an extraordinary situation; a rush of urgent calls on a busy day in the middle of winter, at a time when we’re likely approaching the peak of pressure on the system from the pandemic,” he said.

“I’m grateful that the patients all received the care they needed.”

Earlier in the day, Alberta’s Official Opposition NDP released details of a Freedom of Information request on EMS red alerts.  Red alerts are a code used by Alberta Health Services to show times when no ambulances are available to respond to emergency calls.

The data showed that there was an average of 17 red alerts combined between Calgary and Edmonton every day between August 2021 and Dec. 6, 2021.  That compared with a two-per-day average in Calgary in 2018, their information showed.

“Albertans need to know that when they are in distress and call 911 that an ambulance will reach them as quickly as possible,” said Alberta NDP Health Critic David Shepherd.

“The fact that an ambulance wasn’t available almost every hour of the day in our province’s two major cities is severely alarming.”

Copping said high call volumes related to the pandemic, the opioid crisis and emergency department transfer times are contributing to the strain. Call volumes have increased 30 per cent since summer, he said.

More resources required: HSAA president

Last week, Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the union representing most Alberta paramedics, said the prior week there were 266 unfilled paramedic shifts across the province.

He also noted that three labs were shut down due to staff shortages.

Parker said they were after three things to support for Alberta’s frontline health workers. First, they wanted better Covid-19 protection, in the form of accessible N95 masks.

“We need to ensure that our members stay healthy and that they are not taking on the additional strain of worrying about bringing COVID back to their families,” he said.

They also wanted to see more respect for mental health and well-being. He said the system is currently running on overtime. It’s not just paramedics signing up for extra shifts. It’s getting long response calls minutes before their shift ends.

“Our members will work those extra shifts, but they need assurances that they will be treated with compassion,” he said.

Parker also called for a dedicated plan to recruit and retain health care workers.

EMS 10 point plant

AHS Chief paramedic, Darren Sandbeck. MEDIA CONFERENCE

AHS Chief paramedic, Darren Sandbeck, said the announcement was made because the system is under considerable pressure.

Sandbeck said there are 10 new initiatives they’ll put in place to address short, medium and long-term problems. Some of the initiatives they’ve already put in place.

“Some people may wonder why we waited until just now to move on these ideas,” Sandbeck said.

“The truth is, is that we haven’t waited at all many of these actions have been underway behind the scenes over the last number of months. We’ve been focused on making these improvements and perhaps not as diligent as we should have been on talking about them.”

The changes are expected to be permanent, and not just to address the current strain.

Consolidated EMS dispatch – compound the issue, or highlight a bigger one?

Parker said previously, he can only recall red alerts when there were major mass casualty incidents in Alberta. He referred to the Edmonton and Pine Lake tornadoes where EMS units were brought in, adding stress to the system.

“We are functioning now at that level every single day in this province,” he said.

Parker was asked last week about recent changes to EMS dispatch in Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. He said it was a question of more ambulances, not the dispatch.

“On dispatch, we have moved from a broken system of piecemeal across this province to a standardized system that shows every single available resource in this province,” he said.

The difficulty for communications officers is this: There are no ambulances left to dispatch when the volume gets so high.”

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, who was slated to meet with her counterparts in other recently consolidated cities along with Alberta’s Health Minister, said some good news has come out of the EMS dispatch situation.

“I would say maybe the only positive to come out of this consolidated system that they prize so heavily is that they can see now that there’s not enough ambulances,” she said.

It was a system that wasn’t broken and was among the best in the world. Now, it’s exacerbated and highlighted health care issues, the mayor said.

Minister Copping said the province was committed to a new, third-party review of EMS dispatch in Alberta.

“We believe that an outside group of experienced health system experts will be able to identify further opportunities to address ongoing pressures and improve effectiveness and efficiencies in how the dispatch system works,” he said.