Internal memos show Calgary EMS is on hiring spree while trying to stretch lifespan of ambulances

·6 min read

As Calgary's EMS system struggles to keep up with demand and staff warn of widespread burnout and mental health struggles, AHS has started an "aggressive hiring program" — but has also clawed back funding for fleet replacement, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

"AHS EMS has been advised that our fleet replacement capital will be significantly reduced from what we might have wanted," reads a memo dated Oct. 19 from the Calgary Zone EMS Operations Leadership team and EMS Fleets Operations.

"With limited ability to replace our ambulances, we need to do all that we can in order to maximize the lifespan of our current vehicles."

The memo says EMS is making changes in rural and suburban areas to move older trucks to areas where fewer kilometres are logged per month.

"Once the suburban/rural fleet assignment process is well underway, we will start to address the metro and IFT fleet to see how we can maximize vehicle lifespan while keeping the fleet safe for the start/stop emergency driving done in the metro environment," it reads.

Another memo obtained by CBC News, dated Oct. 16, says the leadership in the Calgary zone is embarking on what it calls an "aggressive hiring program" that aims to boost staff by 44 positions by December of this year.

The memo, written by Randy Bryksa, the assistant executive director of Calgary zone EMS, as well as clinical operations directors Curtis Swanson and Les Fisher, says those new hires will fill vacant permanent and temporary positions as well as increase the pool of casual employees.

AHS downplays memos

James Wood, a spokesperson for AHS, said the wording in the fleet replacement memo was "not entirely accurate."

"EMS requested $8.8 million in funding this year to replace ambulances and other paramedic vehicles. AHS provided $8.8 million," he said.

The funding in question is for future fiscal years, according to Wood, and he said there have been no decisions made at this time. He said capital funding has been decided for 2020-21.

The memo makes no mention of future funding.

Wood did not directly answer when asked whether AHS plans to extend the lifecycle of ambulances in the fleet, and did not respond to two requests regarding how many ambulances are listed as needing refurbishment or replacement.

Wood said suppliers were only able to provide a limited number of new vehicles this year "due to reduced production capacity and related higher national demand due to COVID-19."

In terms of the "aggressive hiring program," Wood also downplayed the significance.

"EMS consistently maintains optimal staffing levels to meet patient needs and has a provincial hiring program that regularly reviews current needs and anticipates future vacancies so they can be proactively managed," he said.

"Current staffing levels are appropriate for the existing realities and conditions."

Wood did not give specific numbers for Calgary, but said AHS is hiring 20 full-time equivalent positions and 100 casuals province-wide.

"The hiring of the 20 FTEs is to fill presently vacant positions," he said.

"Casuals are hired to replace for short term vacancies such as vacation, sick-time, and other planned and unplanned leaves."

Paramedics respond

Several paramedics who work in the Calgary area say they are concerned about fleet replacement being stalled at a time when trucks are being pushed to their limits due to a shortage of resources and through a new digital dispatch system they say adds more kilometres on a typical shift.

They also say the current staff shortage is anything but business as usual.

Previously, Calgary EMS staff have told CBC News about untenable working conditions that are having a profound impact on the mental health of many employees and about a shortage of resources that results in too few ambulances available in Calgary and surrounding areas.

CBC New has agreed not to identify the paramedics who spoke to CBC News for this story because they could lose their jobs and their licence to practise for speaking to the media.

"Beyond the inability to replace the aging units, I cannot see from my perspective how this is affecting our ability in the short term to meet our service goals for the community," said one paramedic.

"In the long term, I can see that the upkeep of these aging vehicles will eventually be as expensive as to replace them would have been. How long that will take prior to overlapping, I cannot say."

New dispatch system

Some of the paramedics pointed to a new digital dispatch system called Optima that doesn't allow crews to rest and adds more kilometres travelled to each shift.

"Since the implementation of Optima, we have been forced to drive where the program thinks the next call is going to be, based on data trends," said one paramedic.

"Pre-Optima we generally would hold a hall in the city and respond when a call was processed. Now, rather than sit and react, we are being frivolously moved around by a computer program based on where it thinks the next call will be."

The same paramedic estimates the system has meant an increase in driving of 10-20 per cent for a metro crew, accelerating the wear and tear on the vehicles.

Wood, however, says AHS has not noted "a significant change in the total kilometres travelled from previous years."

But it's not just the vehicles that are being worn out, according to the paramedics.

Burn out among staff

Several current employees say there are over 100 staff out on some form of leave at this time, putting even more pressure on those who remain. They say it is not uncommon for several trucks to be out of service on any given shift due to a shortage of paramedics to staff them.

That, in turn, increases the pressure and the workload for each shift, which some say leads to even more instances of people taking leaves or calling in sick in order to get a break.

None of the paramedics who spoke with CBC News said the hiring spree was normal.

"They have burned out and destroyed their current workforce, and when they say current staffing levels are appropriate for the conditions, they get away with that because anyone off on mental health or other injury is still factored into active staffing," said one paramedic.

They anticipate the hiring will focus on getting more casuals to fill in.

"EMS hopes to get five years out of people. The brass will never put any effort into development and retention of who they have. Why would they when they can educate kids at no cost to the organization, smoke them to the filter, and do it all over again every couple years."

Another paramedic says the number of new hires is unprecedented.

"It is not abnormal to see an annual casual pool hiring of less than 10 staff," the paramedic said. "Fourty-four is unheard of."

When asked about whether over 100 current full-time staff are away on some form of leave, Wood said those numbers were "not available at this time."

Wood also did not answer when asked why the internal memos were at odds with the answers from AHS.