Wood Buffalo defies Alberta Health Services, refuses to transfer 911 calls to provincial dispatch

·3 min read

After vocally fighting the government for months, Wood Buffalo emergency services says it will no longer transfer 911 calls to the provincial dispatch centre.

In January, Alberta Health Services centralized ambulance dispatch calls for Red Deer, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Calgary and Lethbridge. The mayors of those communities fought the decision for months and held a news conference to say the new system was endangering lives.

But AHS held its ground and said the centralized system was working well.

At Tuesday night's council meeting, the mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo brought forward a motion to stop transferring the calls.

"There are circumstances when acts of defiance and resistance, I believe, are absolutely necessary," Don Scott said. "When decisions are made by a level of government that put the health of our residents at risk in the region, then that's one of them."

He said AHS has been told for months the new system would be lead to reduced services.

The province can dissolve the municipal council if it wants to, Scott said.

"If this is the one issue that we need to stand our ground on no matter the cost, then I'm prepared to do it," he said.

The motion carried unanimously.

Coun. Mike Allen said he is prepared to risk his position on council because the issue is about "protecting the lives of our residents."

"I'm prepared to support it right to the bitter end," he said.

Coun. Verna Murphy accused the government of "playing politics" with people's lives.

"It feels like a huge pissing match with the province," she said. "It feels like their egos are altering their brain waves."

The municipality is drafting a letter to tell AHS that municipal dispatch employees will be instructed within the next 24 hours not to transfer 911 calls.

"I challenge the provincial government to remove me as a mayor," said Scott.

Julie Stewart, fire captain with Anzac's volunteer fire department, said there have been several serious incidents where the fire department wasn't called and residents had to wait about an hour for medical attention.

Stewart was happy to hear about council's decision.

"Nobody wants a fatality on our hands with this transition," she said.

Submitted by Julie Stewart
Submitted by Julie Stewart

She said she hopes other municipalities affected by the change will take the same approach.

Anzac is a rural community, Stewart said, and the new dispatchers don't know the area. Residents calling 911 have been asked to identify their location by the nearest intersection.

"We have one four-way in this entire community," said Stewart.

Ending the transfer system will allow the municipality to respond to emergencies minutes faster, said Jody Butz, fire chief of the RMWB.

"I don't blame the dispatcher in Calgary for not knowing Highway 881, or the Bridge to Nowhere," Butz said. "That's very commonly understood in our region."

The focus is on ensuring residents of Wood Buffalo get the care they need when they call 911, said Darren Sandbeck, chief paramedic for AHS.

AHS already provides that service for two-thirds of the province, Sandbeck said in an emailed statement.

"We are concerned that the intention signaled by the municipality could adversely affect patient care," he said.

So far, the municipality hasn't provided evidence of delays or inappropriate responses, he said.

"AHS has looked into every event that has been raised to date, and there have been no issues or intervention required by the municipality," Sandbeck said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, AHS was still receiving 911 calls, he said, and ambulances are dispatched exactly as they were before the transition, with the same local paramedics providing service.

The paramedics "know the streets, locations and neighbourhoods," he said. "Our provincial dispatch system works well, it is effective and it has the best interests of Albertans at heart."