It took four minutes for a dispatcher from Alberta Health Services (AHS) to tell paramedics going to a choking incident why they were being dispatched this past month, says Jody Butz, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s (RMWF) fire chief and emergency management director.
Butz said the same dispatch system tried sending a ground ambulance to someone having an allergic reaction in a forested area north of the Fort McKay First Nation in July. The individual told the dispatcher they could not be reached by any roads, but it took 15 minutes for a helicopter to be sent instead.
Those same ground ambulances have been asked to respond to incidents near Uranium City, Sask. since AHS’ centralized dispatch system took over in January, said Butz. It is impossible to drive to the community from anywhere in the municipality without winter roads.
Medical privacy laws prevent Butz from saying what happened to the people in these incidents, but he confirmed at least one medical emergency near Draper has ended in a death. Butz said AHS’ response was “unacceptable,” but could not legally provide more details.
“This is alarming and it’s happening across the province,” said Butz in a Friday interview. “The province said there would be no degradation in service. The minister said that… Months after this transition, we’re seeing these gaps in service.”
Butz’s comments came a day after the municipality asked the province to let its own Emergency Communication Centre dispatch EMS calls. A spokesperson for Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro did not return requests for comment.
“We’re qualified to provide a high-quality service, just as we did for 40 years. We want the approval to operate as a dispatch centre,” said Butz. “We are still an accredited dispatch centre that’s still dispatching fire. We’re well positioned and well equipped to provide EMS dispatch services throughout the region.”
EMS calls in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo area began going to AHS dispatch centres in Calgary, Edmonton and Peace River in January.
Municipal council, every First Nation and Métis community in the area, the union representing local firefighters and UCP MLA Tany Yao feared handing EMS calls to dispatchers outside the community would delay response times. Council unanimously offered to fund local EMS dispatchers.
Premier Jason Kenney, Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro and AHS Chief Paramedic Darren Sandbeck have argued most of Alberta already uses the centralized system and municipal complaints about certain incidents are unfounded.
The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench granted a temporary injunction against the municipality after council unanimously voted to stop sending 911 EMS calls to the AHS system at a Feb. 9 meeting. The municipality is challenging the injunction in court, which has yet to be scheduled.
A working group ran between March and May with political and emergency leaders from the municipality, Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge—who were also switched to the centralized dispatch system—to work with AHS on the issue. Butz said no progress was made.
“The provincial government just refuses to acknowledge the problems we’re facing,” he said. “It’s a bad state of affairs out there.”
-with files from Laura Beamish