Alberta paramedic union raising red flag over ambulance red alerts

·2 min read
Members of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta have told the union that there have been at least 135 occasions in the past 50 days when no ambulance was available to respond to a call.  (CBC - image credit)
Members of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta have told the union that there have been at least 135 occasions in the past 50 days when no ambulance was available to respond to a call. (CBC - image credit)

Alberta's paramedic trade union is calling on the provincial government "to come clean" about the state of ambulance services.

Union members say there have been at least 135 instances in the last 50 days when no ambulances were available if people needed one, according to a news release issued by the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents over 27,000 health-care workers and paramedics.

"When you exceed the available resources — as in, there are no ambulances left in the system in Edmonton or Calgary — you start drawing in from outlying communities," said president Mike Parker.

"This is putting anybody who is dialing 911 in critical peril."

In some cases, paramedics and ambulances have to travel considerable distances to respond to calls because they are the nearest unit available, he said.

Recently, a paramedic team from Kananskis responded to a 9-1-1 call in Calgary, he added. Kananskis is about 75 kilometres west of the city.

HSAA website
HSAA website

Meanwhile, during the same 50-day period, more than 60 outlying communities had an ambulance parked for at least a day due to a lack of crews. There are 290 unfilled paramedic shifts this week, the union says.

The strain on paramedics has been a growing issue for a decade, and several governments, including the NDP, have failed to take action, said Parker.

The problem has only gotten worse due to population growth, the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis, he added.

Parker is calling on the Alberta government for statistics around paramedics.

"They need to start showing how bad this system is," he said. "They know what's going on, they know the fix. It's leadership that has failed these paramedics and it's got to be corrected immediately."

A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services (AHS) — the authority in charge of delivering health care in the province — says paramedics are responding to up to 30 per cent more calls this year. But they assured that anyone who needs an ambulance will get one.

"We are ensuring that the most critical patients are prioritized for receiving immediate care," the spokesperson said in an email.

Red alerts or Code Reds do not mean AHS emergency services cannot respond, they explained. The alert is meant to signal when and where more resources are needed so AHS can respond appropriately.

Code reds often only last "a few seconds to a couple of minutes," and end when resources a freed up, or ambulances from other jurisdictions take the call.

AHS has hired more paramedics over the last two years, from 2,659 in 2019 to 2,891 in 2021 (as of Wednesday), the spokesperson said.

AHS is offering overtime to staff willing to work, and is finding ways to send patients to other locations other than hospitals, such as urgent care centres, they said. That would help get ambulances back to service much faster.

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