Calgary had no ambulances available an average of 420 times per month to start 2022

·3 min read
An ambulance is parked outside the emergency department at Foothills Hospital in January. In the first six months of this year, 2,522 red alerts were recorded in Calgary, an average of 420 a month. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)
An ambulance is parked outside the emergency department at Foothills Hospital in January. In the first six months of this year, 2,522 red alerts were recorded in Calgary, an average of 420 a month. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)

Data from Alberta Health Services indicates Calgary's ambulance performance and response times continue to decline as red alerts more than doubled in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2021.

Red alerts refer to those instances in which no ambulances were available in the system to respond to emergency calls.

The data was obtained by the Opposition NDP through a freedom of information request and shared with CBC News.

Ambulance red alerts in Calgary

In the first six months of 2022, there were 2,522 red alerts recorded, an average of 420 each month. The highest month recorded was in April, when 618 incidents were recorded. There were 1,233 red alerts recorded in the first half of 2021, and 2,358 recorded in the entire year — meaning this year's numbers have already surpassed that mark.

The average of 420 more than doubles what was recorded in the first six months of 2021, when an average of 205 red alerts per month were recorded. The average for the first six months of 2020 was 145 per month, with a total of 3,324 recorded that year.

Mike Parker, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, said the data supported what the union had been saying for months — that the province's health-care system is "decimated."

"Time and time again, AHS will say that there's always an ambulance available. And the data does not support that conversation," Parker said.

"It supports what we've been saying from the beginning. We don't have enough people, we don't have enough paramedics on the streets to take care of Albertans' needs."

WATCH | Mike Parker speaks about an ambulance crisis in Alberta, a paramedic shortage and what he thinks can be done:

AHS has said that higher-than-normal volumes of seriously ill patients, the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased staff absences relating to illnesses have contributed to the "significant pressure" on the system.

But others have been raising the alarm about the continued red alerts for years. In late 2020, critics said the system was "teetering on the razor's edge."

"We can't continue to blame it on staff shortages due to COVID or those sorts of factors," said Lorian Hardcastle, who teaches health law and policy at the University of Calgary.

"This is a persistent problem. And the government needs to do something about it sooner or later. We don't want to get to a point where we have several catastrophic incidents where people die waiting for ambulance."

In early July, AHS announced that nine new ambulances were now on the streets of Calgary and Edmonton. The goal was to relieve some of the pressure.

But Parker called that news a "non-announcement," adding that the problem was the availability of paramedics to complete the work, not the vehicles they use to get there.

In a release, the NDP called for a commitment to get paramedics off shift on time, a plan to give all paramedics a full-time permanent contract and an "urgent expansion" of harm reduction service to address the opioid crisis.

HSAA website
HSAA website

In an emailed statement Wednesday evening, AHS said 10 new ambulances will be acquired in September, along with more staff.

It reiterated the impact of the pandemic on EMS, saying "this is not unique to Alberta — EMS is under similar pressure in health-care jurisdictions across Canada."

"The key factor in EMS red alerts remains the amount of time EMS crews must remain in hospital emergency departments waiting to safely transfer care," it said.

"AHS continues to work with hospitals, EMS and Alberta Health to collaborate on the best ways to release EMS crews back to service sooner so the instances of red alerts can be reduced."

AHS also flagged the $64 million allocated to EMS in this year's provincial budget, saying the increased budget would help to add staff quickly.

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