Alberta mayors call for investigation, halt to EMS consolidation after dispatch outage

·4 min read

Four Alberta mayors are calling for the provincial government to halt its takeover of 911 EMS dispatch in their communities and initiate a third-party investigation after technological problems resulted in a 16-minute delay for emergency services in Calgary last Tuesday.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) announced in August it would consolidate ambulance dispatch centres across the province, bringing municipally controlled operations in Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer and the Municipality of Wood Buffalo into the three existing AHS centres.

The changes took place on Jan. 12 for Red Deer and Lethbridge, Jan. 19 for Wood Buffalo and Jan. 26 for Calgary.

However, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in a Zoom conference Monday that there was a problem on that first evening.

An ambulance was not dispatched by AHS to a 911 emergency medical call downtown for 16 minutes because its phones and computer-aided dispatch system went down, he said.

"AHS needed to be prepared. They clearly have not been," Nenshi said.

"So not even 13 hours after the transition, we had a major breakdown of the communications system."

CBC
CBC

In an open letter addressed to Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Mayors Nenshi of Calgary, Tara Veer of Red Deer, Chris Spearman of Lethbridge, and Don Scott of Wood Buffalo called for a third-party investigation into the incident, and outlined a slew of other safety concerns.

They also asked that the dispatch consolidation be paused until the issues can be resolved.

AHS not transparent, won't share information, mayors say

In spite of at least two notifications from Calgary 911, the mayors said the call on Jan. 26 was not responded to, and AHS never notified the Calgary Fire Department to send first responders.

AHS has also not provided any clarification about what caused the outage, the mayors said.

"Our experience on this significant outage demonstrates that AHS is not transparent and does not share information," their letter read.

"Our emergency dispatchers should have been contacted as soon as the incident occurred, with an explanation as to why it occurred, and what mitigation measures were put in place."

In addition to the technical outage, other safety concerns brought forward by the mayors included understaffed AHS dispatch centres, and misinformation regarding the status of possible COVID-19 cases being communicated to emergency responders.

"Over the last several weeks, our worst fears around the decentralization of EMS dispatch have been coming true," said Spearman.

He implored citizens to write to their MLA and the government asking for change.

"There appears to be no accountability at the provincial level, and no attempts to include us," he said.

"The provincial government is clearly not interested in listening to us, so perhaps they will listen to you … an investigation needs to be made."

According to Scott, emergency services staff in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo are having to directly intervene in approximately 20 per cent of medical calls to prevent AHS-caused delays.

He also cited a rural snowmobiling accident near Anzac that resulted in two ambulances being called from Fort McMurray, when closer services were available at a nearby volunteer fire department.

"I consider this to be a massive failure that is impacting all residents," Scott said.

Chief paramedic responds

AHS chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck responded directly to the claims on Monday afternoon, and said that no processes have changed since AHS took over.

"We are aware of the inaccurate claims being made regarding the recent consolidation of EMS dispatch," Sandbeck said.

"Let me be very clear: There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the recent consolidation of EMS dispatch has led to any delays or inappropriate responses in any of the communities where consolidation occurred."

Evelyne Asselin/CBC
Evelyne Asselin/CBC

Furthermore, he said the outage that occurred on Jan. 26 had nothing to do with the consolidation of services, and would have impacted both services the same way.

Sandbeck also said AHS was prepared to take over the service, there are no vacancies at AHS dispatch, and the claims made by the mayors are "wildly inaccurate."

"As a paramedic of over 40 years … I find it extremely disappointing," Sandbeck said.

CBC News has reached out to the health minister and has yet to receive a response.

Mayors opposed for months

The mayors of the four Alberta municipalities have been vocally opposed to the transition in services since it was announced last summer, and made a last-ditch appeal to the province in January to stop the centralization of 911 EMS dispatch in their communities.

They said they were concerned the takeover would slow EMS response and there would be insufficient linkages with local fire and police services.

Some first responder groups, like the union representing Calgary firefighters, also expressed concerns it could cause delays in co-ordinated responses.

However, AHS has said the move would save $6 million a year and allow the province to send the nearest available ambulance to a patient.