EMS in Grande Prairie shares local challenges
Staffing, increased call volumes and supply chain issues are some of the challenges Alberta Health Services (AHS) emergency services is currently experiencing in the Grande Prairie region.
Rob Barone, AHS North Zone operations associate executive director, said a variety of factors are at play: “An increase in 911 event volumes (and) inter-facility transfer volumes, emergency department offload delays, recruitment and retention challenges (and) global supply chain issues.”
“In the City of Grande Prairie, our call volume has increased by 23 per cent, and if you actually isolate 911 calls by themselves, they've gone up by 43 per cent in that same period,” Barone said, citing data from 2016 to 2022.
“Those are huge numbers almost, I'd say almost crisis level,” said city coun. Chris Thiessen.
EMS crews are also facing delays when offloading to the hospital emergency department.
Barone explained the provincial target from when an ambulance arrives at a hospital until they are ready to go again is 90 minutes.
Currently, he said those times sometime exceed two hours, which causes impacts on EMS' ability to respond.
He noted that in other Canadian jurisdictions, the target time is 45 minutes, and that could be realized here if the same model was adopted.
“The time that we would get back into the system would amount to a total of about 27 additional 12-hour ambulances within the province of Alberta.
“Here in Grande Prairie, we would actually get back 1.9 ambulances each and every 24-hour period.”
The city currently has four daytime advanced life support (ALS) ambulances and four at night, with an additional two on the road during peak times, said Barone.
“We'll have up to six ambulances on the road here in Grande Prairie.”
Additionally, AHS also has a supervisor vehicle that is a primary care response unit and three mobile integrated health units (community paramedics).
Last year Grande Prairie EMS responded to 13,678 events.
“I think a number of us have likely heard from our firefighters a real concern about what they're seeing in the breakdown of the EMS system,” said coun. Dylan Bressey.
“When it impacts fire, it's very directly hitting a municipal service.”
City council has directed administration to bring back a report on the fire department's time on task and the number of calls carried out without backup.
Grande Prairie ambulances serve not only the city but its surrounding communities, including the county, MD of Greenview, Beaverlodge, Valleyview, Sexsmith and Spirit River.
Travel time when moving between communities also adds up.
Coun. Kevin O’Toole said he would like to see the private sector come into play for patient transfers between the communities where ALS ambulances are not needed.
“I'm very concerned about the state of healthcare,” said O’Toole.
Barone noted EMS is seeing an increase in worker's compensation claims due to psychological injury.
The injuries have resulted in paramedic shortages not only in Grande Prairie but across Canada.
“There's not enough practitioners to fill all of the vacant positions, and therefore they have the opportunity to move within the province as they see fit,” said Barone.
Grande Prairie is at about 10-12 per cent vacancy rate for full-time paramedic positions while the rest of the province sits at about 30 per cent vacancy, said Barone.
He noted discussions to increase enrolment numbers at training institutions are ongoing but workforce habits have also changed.
“Years ago, when I first started if you accepted a full-time job in a community, whether it was Grande Prairie or Valleyview or wherever, it was unspoken (that) you just moved to it because that's where your work was.
“That's not a reality anymore.
“We have a lot of our practitioners who continue to live in Edmonton and Calgary, and they come up for their shifts, and then they go home.”
The community needs to find ways to make it attractive for professionals to come and stay, said Barone.
First responders are also facing supply chain issues.
“We are right now looking at anywhere from up to 24 months in order to take delivery of a new ambulance,” said Barone.
Typically, the delivery time averaged four months, he said.
The delays have caused AHS to fall behind in updating its fleet.
“Our ambulances are remaining on the road longer in years and in kilometres which means we're starting to see more breakdowns, and the breakdowns are actually lasting longer because service is difficult to get them back on the road because they're waiting for parts.”
Barone noted ambulance repairs and an increase in call volumes compound the problem.
Medical equipment is also in short supply with AHS “scrambling” to find different vendors for items.
Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Town & Country News