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Ambulance ‘red alerts’ an issue for Red Deer and central Alberta communities

EMS services stretched beyond their limits, says union
Alberta Health Services (AHS) said alerts “often last only a few seconds to a couple of minutes” with no impact on patient care and ambulance wait times. (Advocate file photo)

No ambulances were available to respond to calls during at least 20 red alerts over three days in October in communities across Alberta — including three alerts in Red Deer, according to the union representing paramedics.

In addition to that Oct 23 to 25 snapshot, Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) data showed that between Aug. 28 and Oct. 16 at least 135 red alerts were declared — when no ambulance is available to respond — in at least 12 communities including 15 alerts in Red Deer, four in Lacombe, twice in Wetaskiwin, and once in Innisfail.

HSAA began tracking data at HSAA EMS on Facebook after the province consolidated ambulance dispatch. The data was collected on a voluntary basis, so HSAA said the number of alerts is actually higher.

“Decisions by Alberta Health Services and inaction by the current government mean it’s now a game of chance if there will be an ambulance when you or your family need it most,” said HSAA president Mike Parker.

“We have heard reassurances the closest ambulance will be sent to people who need them. What we aren’t being told is the number of times there is no ambulance available to respond, or that when one is available it could be coming from another city or town — 30 minutes or even an hour away.”

But Alberta Health Services (AHS) said alerts “often last only a few seconds to a couple of minutes” with no impact on patient care and ambulance wait times.

Ambulance dispatch was consolidated for Red Deer, Lethbridge, Calgary and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo on Jan. 12 despite ardent and continuous objections from the municipalities.


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Tyler Pelke, deputy chief of operations with Red Deer Emergency Services, said emergency service response is a dynamic situation with calls regularly coming in, and ambulances finishing up with patients, so it’s likely that alerts may not last long.

As a contract provider for AHS, Red Deer EMS does not declare alerts. But there are times when Red Deer ambulances are unavailable and units from elsewhere are called in, he said.

“Over the fall months when we were dealing with that fourth (COVID) wave there were lots of units, not just City of Red Deer units, working with hospitals to move sick patients in and around ICUs. That takes units out of service for quite a period of time, especially if you have to drive to Calgary,” Pelke said.

“Our people have been working very hard over the last 24 months. They’re tired. They’re spent. We’re doing our best to support them and they do their best to show up every day. The city of Red Deer can be assured our folks work very hard and tirelessly every day.”

He said five Red Deer fire engines also have advanced life support equipment to help out.


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Alberta Health Services said red alerts, or code reds, do not mean AHS EMS is unable to respond, but rather lets EMS know when and where additional resources are required to ensure they are able to always respond to emergencies.

“EMS monitors ambulance availability in real-time and ensures resources are available to respond to emergencies. System adjustments are made minute by minute to make the best use of the existing resources,” said AHS in a statement.

AHS said EMS crews have been responding to up to 30 per cent more calls during 2021 due to the pandemic, opioid concerns, and emergency calls related to people returning to regular levels of activity.

“All call types have increased all across the province and high levels of staff illness and fatigue are also contributing to challenges in the EMS system. EMS has been in touch with colleagues across Canada and around the globe and this increase in calls and staffing level challenges are a global phenomenon.”

AHS said EMS has brought on additional staff and ambulances and is filling 100 paramedic positions across the province. EMS is also offering overtime to staff and is working toward finding ways to transport patients to alternate destinations such as Urgent Care Centres, instead of hospitals, which can help return ambulances to service significantly faster.

Pelke said Red Deer has five ambulances and AHS has so far not contacted the city to provide more staff or ambulances.

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