Alberta ambulance dispatchers are 'beyond exhausted,' call taker says

·3 min read
A 911 operator at one of Alberta's EMS dispatch call centres says emergency communications officers are overworked and stressed. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC - image credit)
A 911 operator at one of Alberta's EMS dispatch call centres says emergency communications officers are overworked and stressed. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC - image credit)

Burnout and stress in Alberta's overstretched health-care system is leading to absenteeism and turnover among 911 operators, according to a worker taking calls for the province's ambulances.

The 911 call taker, an emergency communications officer (ECO) working in one of Alberta's three EMS call centres, says they are at wit's end, unable to keep up with "relentless" 12-hour shifts.

"I can attest to the absolute imploding of the 911 call/dispatch system," the call taker wrote. "Frankly, we are beyond exhausted. We all know the level of intensity work is going to be [high] for 12 hours."

CBC News has agreed to keep the writer's identity and work location confidential out of their concern for their employment, having not been authorized to speak to the media.

The dispatcher contacted CBC News following a story about a freedom of information (FOI) request on employee absenteeism among emergency communications officers in provincial 911 call centres.

That FOI request showed 12 per cent of scheduled shifts from January to April this year went unfilled. There were several days where more than a fifth of shifts were not staffed.

An Alberta Health Services spokesperson says the absenteeism is due to illness, stress and fatigue — something experienced across the spectrum of health-care professions.

'We care for our patients'

The emergency communications officer says call volumes and absenteeism have a direct effect on patient care as operators are forced to interrupt vital lines of communication between 911 callers and EMS crews.

Still, the ECO says, they do their best with the resources at hand.

"I think part of the problem is, too, that all of us on shift make it all happen," the email reads. "We care for our patients, and do all we can to make care available to them."

AHS says system-wide absenteeism has decreased from highs seen earlier in the year when it was 4.89 per cent. By comparison, that number was 7.3 per cent in January, the peak of the previous Omicron wave of COVID-19.

The FOI request shows that in January 14.6 per cent of shifts went unfilled at Alberta EMS call centres. Numbers for June were not available.

Ratifying a new collective agreement

AHS says employee turnover is an issue, which was echoed in the letter from the emergency communications officer, who says their call centre has been hiring continuously for six months.

Mike Parker is the president of the Health Services Association of Alberta, the union representing EMS and call-centre employees working for AHS. He says pay equity with 911 call centres run by municipalities (responsible for police and fire dispatch) would go a long way to solving the turnover issue.

"These folks are being paid 10 bucks less an hour than any other communications centre in this province," Parker told CBC Calgary's The Homestretch.

"So why would they stay? They are highly trained and highly skilled, and if they can get through this work here, they can do it anywhere, and so they move on."

The ECO letter also speaks about contract negotiations between the HSAA and AHS, which concluded with a mediated settlement in June, saying they are not satisfied with progress on pay and working conditions.

"You do indeed have the perfect storm," says the call dispatcher. "We are disgruntled, we are fed up, and we are very sad that we cannot provide the patient care we all want to."

AHS says psychological and physical health of employees has been a central point of the bargaining process, underlining the proposed agreement provides enhanced benefits and mental health supports.

The health authority says it is actively working to recruit new staff to relieve system pressure and stress.

"AHS is committed to providing competitive compensation packages," it said in a statement. "Once ratified, the new collective agreement will provide wage increases over four years."

A vote on whether HSAA members will accept the new contract concludes July 25.

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