Wood Buffalo vying to have its own emergency dispatch approved by the province

·3 min read
The EMS dispatch system affects crews across Wood Buffalo. (The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo - image credit)
The EMS dispatch system affects crews across Wood Buffalo. (The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo - image credit)

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has applied to have its own dispatch centre approved by Alberta Health.

The move comes after a months-long battle between the province and municipality. The province changed the municipality's EMS dispatch to the provincial model in January, despite pushback from the region.

The municipality went so far as to stop transferring the calls, and the province took the municipality to court, getting a temporary injunction.

Jody Butz, regional fire chief of Wood Buffalo, said the municipality hasn't stopped working toward regaining the ability to dispatch EMS in Wood Buffalo and now it has submitted an application to operate a dispatch centre.

"The goal is to re-establish our local emergency communication centre as a dispatch centre, be able to dispatch our own EMS resources," said Butz.

"There's a definite degradation in service since the transition of EMS dispatch," said Butz.

He said Alberta Health is unwilling to "admit that there's a huge problem with this transition."

Currently, when someone in Wood Buffalo calls EMS, they are directed to an operator in Fort McMurray, who now has to transfer the call to another centre in Peace River, Edmonton or Calgary.

But for three months, starting in January, Butz said the Fort McMurray dispatchers started shadowing the emergency calls —they wouldn't hang up the phone after transferring to another centre, instead they listened in.

"We gathered hundreds of examples where… if that call was dispatched locally it would've been done quicker and safer," said Butz.

For example, while the municipality was shadowing calls, a five-year-old girl called to get help for her parents and was transferred three times before she could get help, Butz said.

Butz said in July, an Alberta Health Services call taker got a call for a severe allergic reaction. The caller said they were four hours north of Fort McKay, an area inaccessible by road.

"But what did they do? They dispatched a ground ambulance," said Butz. It took 15 minutes for the dispatcher to then send a helicopter, said Butz.

"The dependence on call transfer, duplication of questioning, the additional possible failure, all adds time to the critical events," said Butz.

Butz said before the switch to the provincial dispatch system, there would be no transfers.

Alberta Health did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

Michelle Germain, senior emergency communications officer with the RMWB, was part of the team shadowing the dispatch calls.

"We had to intervene multiple times," said Germain. She said dispatchers would only intervene in critical situations, to help with addresses. That happened "several hundreds of times" over the three month period, said Germain.

"It's hard when we have these types of incidents happen in our local community to the people that we know, with our dispatchers sitting on the line listening. It's just a very helpless feeling," said Germain.

Nowell Mullins, senior emergency communications officer with the RMWB, said "all the dispatchers felt completely helpless."

Mullins said they've been providing the dispatch service for decades and now "complete strangers" are trying to send help to the community.

"Watching them struggle was very taxing on everybody," said Mullins.

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