Ambulance delays causing extra stress for Alberta firefighters

·3 min read
Ambulance delays across the province are having cascading effects on fire and rescue crews. (CBC - image credit)
Ambulance delays across the province are having cascading effects on fire and rescue crews. (CBC - image credit)

Fire crews and RCMP in Boyle, Alta., recently had to perform CPR on a patient for 45 minutes before an ambulance from Athabasca arrived to take the man to hospital, according to the municipality's mayor.

The patient died, Mayor Colin Derko told CBC News.

"I am unable to say if the patient had been transported to the hospital by EMS sooner [he] would have survived or not, but we have been told that the sooner proper medical treatment can be given, the chances of survival go up dramatically," Derko said in an email Friday.

Long waits for ambulances have become more common in Boyle — on Highway 63, 125 kilometres northeast of Edmonton — and in other Alberta communities.

"The added stress on our volunteers does threaten the long-term sustainability of our volunteer fire department that provides such a critical service to our community," Derko said. The volunteers only receive basic life support training, he said.

Adding its voice to a growing chorus of concerns about the state of Alberta's emergency medical services, Boyle's village council recently wrote to the province, hoping to work toward solutions.

Cascading effect

Ambulances delays are being reported throughout the province, as EMS crews are pulled into major centres like Edmonton and Calgary. The times when ambulances aren't available have a cascading effect, leaving firefighters tied up at medical calls waiting for transport.

Jeff Hutton, director of Strathcona County emergency services, says ambulances are spending more time out of community.

"So that does leave our community at times without service," Hutton said.

Strathcona County's emergency services are trained as both firefighters and paramedics, meaning crews in fire trucks are able to provide advanced care at the scene.

"But it does mean those resources are not available for fire or rescue so that poses a risk to our community," Hutton said.

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Other departments might not have the same level of training and can only provide medical treatment at a lower level, said Matt Osborne, president of the Alberta Firefighters Association.

Obsorne, a 20-year veteran firefighter now working in Calgary, said typically the wait time would be limited to 10 minutes at most but 20 minutes has been common recently.

"As a frontline firefighter, I've never seen the wait times to this point."

First responders are stressed like they have never been before, Osborne said — so busy they might not even have time to take a washroom break.

Responsibility for emergency medical services and municipal fire departments crosses jurisdictions. Osborne hopes collaboration with governments leads to solutions.

Municipal resolutions

At its annual convention last week, the Rural Municipalities Association passed a resolution asking the province to consult with municipalities to develop a plan to improve the system.

Alberta Municipalities — formerly the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association — passed a similar resolution earlier this month with an aim to work alongside the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the union which represents paramedics.

The HSAA has been vocal on the issue, posting updates on social media about "red alerts" — times when when ambulances are not available in a local area. Thirty-one were reported by the union from Wednesday to Friday last week.

HSAA maintains that resourcing has not kept up with population growth and has been an increasing problem for more than a decade. It says COVID-19 and the opioid crisis have only made existing issues worse.

A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services said EMS has seen an unprecedented increase in emergency calls in recent months. It said one factor is that people are returning to normal levels of activity.

Staff illness and fatigue are also contributing to challenges within the system, James Wood said in an emailed statement.

AHS said it has increased the number of paramedics by nine per cent over the last two years, although HSAA says most of these have only been contract positions made permanent.

Wood said additional staff have also been brought on, creating 30 full-time and 70 temporary part-time paramedic positions across the province. Overtime is also being offered to staff who are willing.