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Wood Buffalo to resume regional EMS dispatch next year

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo will handle regional EMS calls next year.  (Submitted by Alberta Health Services - image credit)
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo will handle regional EMS calls next year. (Submitted by Alberta Health Services - image credit)

The Alberta government will allow dispatchers with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to handle regional EMS calls, nearly three years after the calls were taken over by a centralized dispatch.

The Wood Buffalo call centre will cover northeastern Alberta, and join the three other dispatch centres in Calgary, Edmonton and Peace River.

Wood Buffalo Mayor Sandy Bowman said he is pleased the province has finally relented and allowed the region to handle its own EMS calls, something it did until January 2021.

"We're a unique region here," Bowman said in an interview with CBC News. "So, we don't really fit into a centralized EMS dispatch framework."

Integrating into the centralized system means the Wood Buffalo call centre could help when the other three call centres need help.  Bowman says the dispatch centre still exists as staff handle fire calls for the region.

The changeover is expected to happen next year and cost about $2 million.

Wood Buffalo joined Red Deer, Lethbridge and Calgary in fighting the centralization of the EMS dispatch, which meant fire and ambulance calls went through separate channels.

However, the government stood firm and the three cities joined the centralized system in early 2021.

Wood Buffalo municipal leaders warned the vast and remote geography and smaller communities would prove challenging to dispatchers who weren't familiar with the area.

Bowman said he listened to hundreds of EMS calls and found that was the case.

"There would be a mix-up in the EMS whether they're going to Fort McKay or Fort Hills," he said.

"There will be landmarks and road names that aren't familiar [to] the dispatcher in Calgary. So they would have our ambulances … going in the wrong location and even going to where they weren't sure where they're even going."

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said the government doesn't regret taking EMS dispatch out of Wood Buffalo but acknowledged a change was needed.

"We're constantly reevaluating the system and how it's working," she said. "In Wood Buffalo, it's a huge geographic area with very unique geography and unique challenges that we needed to address."

Dr. Luanne Metz, one of the NDP Opposition health critics, is happy the province changed its mind but said the government needs to listen when local people say something isn't going to work.

"I'm hoping that now the next step will be working hard on recruitment of EMS and keeping the ones we have healthy," she said.