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Mayors rehash EMS dispatch issue in early days of the 2023 Alberta election

Four Alberta mayors, including Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, said problems still remain with a centralized EMS dispatch, including a delay in medical first response dispatch.

Just over two years ago, Alberta Health Services (AHS) completed its provincewide consolidation of EMS dispatch, bringing on Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

It was hotly contested after the last provincial election, not only by these four regions, but it offered an opportunity for other mayors and reeves to jump aboard with their displeasure with the system.

Concerns raised at the time included delays in dispatch times, communication issues with other emergency response teams, and potential errors in location and addresses.

In a joint news release issued May 1, the opening day of Alberta’s provincial election, four mayors in the aforementioned cities said the problems they foresaw with the centralized dispatch have been realized.

“Regional monitoring shows consistent data that substantiates original claims that centralized EMS dispatch has resulted in a degradation of service to Albertans,” reads the release.

They said trends identified to Alberta Health and AHS back in 2021 are still current today.

In a December 2022 year-end interview, Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth said that issues remain with the centralized dispatch model, particularly around medical first response. He said they regularly make AHS aware of the problems they encounter.

“I think we continue to see challenges with that model. There’s no question,” he said in December.

In January 2023, an independent report on EMS response showed the centralized dispatch didn’t impact EMS wait times.  They didn’t dig into the impact on medical first response (MFR) calls.   

Since then, the province has taken a number of steps to improve EMS wait times including a hiring push for more paramedics and establishing a call diversion system for non-emergency calls.  

Return to local dispatch: Mayors       

In a familiar refrain, Mayor Gondek, Lethbridge Mayor Blaine Hyggen, Wood Buffalo Mayor Sandy Bowman and Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston, are calling on the province and AHS to return EMS dispatch to the local level.

“First responders from Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and Wood Buffalo have consistently stated that EMS dispatch belongs within our local 911 systems, to ensure that all calls receive an integrated response,” Mayor Gondek said in the news release.  

“In the past, Calgary received global accolades for the integrated nature of our response to emergency calls and we urge the Province to reinstate this successful model.”

The issue of centralized EMS dispatch took a high-profile local turn last June when Betty Ann Williams died after a dog attack in Calgary. An extended EMS response time was highlighted in that incident.

In mid-January this year, the Health Quality Council of Alberta’s review of the situation pointed to a series of miscommunications and a lack of resources – both EMS and dispatch – that led to the delay.

They said EMS dispatch consolidation wasn’t a factor, but it also wasn’t a direct part of their review, officials said.

At that time, Glenda Sahlen, Deputy Chief of Calgary 911, said the medical dispatch issue has created “additional complexities” in handling emergency calls. Sahlen wouldn’t speculate at that time if a localized dispatch would have saved Williams.

“I can say that communication would have been better if we had medical call takers in our centre,” she said.

The four mayors said overall the consolidated dispatch has hurt the health and safety of Albertans. They’re inviting any Albertans that have had delay issues, or a degradation in EMS service, to contact AHS, the Government of Alberta and the Premier to have it returned.

LWC has reached out to AHS for comment.