'We need to do better': Sherwood Park ambulance service nearing a tipping point

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It was two emergencies happening at the same time.

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Many Sherwood Park residents likely heard of the Crimson Drive pedestrian collision last week, where two students from Lakeland Ridge were hit by a car on Nov. 3 and transported to hospital in serious but stable condition.

However, many probably don’t know that at the time of the accident, there were no available ambulances within Sherwood Park to respond. Instead, all three of the Park’s ambulances were dealing with emergencies in Edmonton.

“Strathcona County Professional Fire Fighter/Paramedics Association are extremely concerned with the degradation of ambulance service to our community,” president Andrew Spence told The News.  “Our crews deal with the psychological stress of not being able to service our own community with ambulances due to major issues across Alberta.”

The issue arose again early Saturday morning, when a “ red alert ” was declared due to a lack of ambulances in the Edmonton suburb.

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Ward 2 Coun. Dave Anderson, who represents the area where the Crimson Drive collision occurred, said he has raised the issue numerous times.

“We provide a three-person team in each of our ambulances, which is a far superior service versus the rest of the region. The fact that we had two young children that had to wait for an ambulance to come for critical care and transport is deplorable. We need to do better,” Anderson told The News .

In early September, Fire Chief Jeff Hutton advised the previous council that Strathcona County Emergency Services (SCES) were facing “systemic pressures” related to the EMS system. At that time, call volumes were rising both inside and outside of the county, averaging from 20 calls daily to 30 to 35 each day.

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The county is bound to an Alberta Health Services contract dating back to 2009, where it must provide assistance to neighbouring municipalities — all four of the county’s ambulances are impacted (including the one based in Josephburg).

The contract will expire on March 31, 2023.

“The AHS contract has to be looked at and be scrapped or, at the very least, be renegotiated,” noted the Ward 2 councillor. “The obvious inequity to our residents as rate payers is awful and it’s only a matter of time before we have a loss of life as a result.”

More the 18 minutes for a county ambulance to respond to Park incident

SCES fire trucks, which are manned by cross-trained firefighter-paramedics, were the first on-scene at the Nov. 3 incident — seven minutes and 43 seconds after the 9-1-1 call.

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The ambulance sent from Station 4 near Josephburg took 18 minutes and 35 seconds to arrive. Shortly after, a second ambulance arrived from Fort Saskatchewan.

“Fire departments are designed with stations optimally situated in the community to serve the community. Ideally, our ambulances are also able to respond from these same community locations. This is not always the case with a regional system,” Hutton explained.

“When our ambulances are unable to be first on scene within Strathcona County, we rely on our fire trucks, to provide medical first response (MFR), to be dispatched to ensure our citizens receive timely care. Unfortunately, we find ourselves covering this gap more frequently in 2020 and 2021,” the fire chief added.

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In response, the association president said it’s great to have cross-trained personnel, but that doesn’t resolve the issue of transporting patients to hospital.

Local ambulances outside of the county 50 per cent of the time in 2021

Historically, ambulance crews spent about 20 per cent of their time serving outside of Strathcona County, but in 2021, local ambulances are spending about 50 per cent of their time in other municipalities.

“We are also used to seeing that 80 per cent of the calls from Strathcona County residents are taken by SCES. In 2021, SCES have responded to approximately 70 per cent of the calls from our citizens,” Hutton stated.

While wishing a speedy recovery to those impacted in last week’s accident, Mayor Rod Frank said he also shares the concern of the increased occurrence of county ambulances being dispatched outside of the community.

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“Currently, we are working on finding solutions to this problem with AHS, and will also address it as a matter of priority in our negotiations with AHS when the current agreement expires in 2023,” the mayor said. “This is not a problem unique to Strathcona County. We anticipate discussions on this topic at the upcoming RMA and AUMA conventions. If there is a collaborative pathway to solve these issues with AHS, Strathcona County will step up and be a partner in any such discussions.”

According to the local labour union, Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA EMS), Oct. 19 was another time when all three of the Park’s ambulances were responding to emergencies in Edmonton.

In an October media release, HSAA said EMS services are being stretched beyond their limits and called on AHS for change.

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“Anyone seeking to lead needs to come forward with a plan to address the shortage of paramedics available to respond when sick and injured Albertans need them,” said HSAA president and advance care paramedic Mike Parker. “The cost of continued inaction is measured in lives.”

‘The fact that we couldn’t respond is disturbing’

However, having all three ambulances responding outside of the community is a daily occurrence, confirmed Spence.

“Especially at the beginning and end of the day, we cover all of the city ambulances shift changes. They don’t want to get stuck with overtime, so the contract ends up doing all of the responses between 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Then our crews are stuck at work for an extra hour most shifts,” said the local paramedics association president.

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Ward 4 Coun. Bill Tonita said something has got to give.

“Far more often than what we’d like to see, our ambulances are serving the greater region and are not available in Sherwood Park. When you see something like that happen, that’s a real flag for us because we never want to see that happen,” Tonita said. “The fact that we had two kids hit, in of itself, is a horrible tragedy, but the fact that we couldn’t respond is disturbing.”

Meanwhile, local paramedics say the regional pressures are impacting their mental well-being and job satisfaction.

“We wear a uniform that represents protecting our community. It is extremely frustrating when we know there isn’t an ambulance in our community — we live and raise our families here too,” noted Spencer.

When asked how confident Strathcona County residents should be in a successful contract renegotiation with AHS, the fire chief said; “There is no question it will be a difficult task, but I know Strathcona County will look for every way possible to influence a better outcome.”

—with files from Jonny Wakefield

lmorey@postmedia.com

twitter.com/LindsayDMorey

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