Whenever Joanne Burkin has called for an ambulance for her husband — who has had three heart attacks — the ambulance dispatcher would always stay on the phone with her until help arrived.
But she said that changed when the province consolidated EMS dispatch last month.
“I’m standing here with a husband, who for all I know could have been dying. And there’s no ambulance here, and she hung up,” said Burkin about the 911 call she made Jan. 25 at about 9 p.m.
Burkin said she was told an ambulance was being routed to their home, she should lay her husband Ray on his side, and to call back if needed.
“I didn’t realize she was going to hang up on me.
“I’ve called a lot over the last few years and they I’ve always been told don’t hang up because if something happens they’re there to help you.”
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.
Mayor Tara Veer said that Red Deer dispatchers would most often stay on the phone with 911 callers until the first emergency responder arrived. Ending the call the way the dispatcher did with Burkin was “in my view a premature cutoff of an emergency call.”
“It really speaks to just one of the impacts that consolidation is having and will continue to have on our citizens,” Veer said.
“We’re thankful for members of the public who are demonstrating the courage to come forward with their stories about how the consolidation has impacted them. Because the city is bound by patient confidentiality, it is important in the weeks and months to come that members of the public do come forward to share their experiences.”
On Monday, the four municipal mayors held a press conference calling for an immediate inquiry into a technical outage that impacted ambulance dispatch on Jan. 26, as well as a third-party external review of dispatch consolidation after multiple errors and delays.
Dispatch was consolidated at AHS communications centres in Peace River, Edmonton and Calgary, and the mayors want consolidation paused, saying AHS cannot meet the emergency dispatch demands.
In a statement issued Thursday, AHS said the protocols around when a dispatcher stays on the line with a caller have not changed and remain the same now as when the City of Red Deer dispatched EMS.
“Our dispatchers are highly trained and accredited, and follow best practice when it comes to evaluating calls and providing instructions to callers before paramedics arrive at a scene,” said AHS.
“There are times when our dispatchers may stay on the line with a caller, depending on the type of call and the level of distress the patient is experiencing. For example, if a dispatcher needs to provide healthcare advice, or calm down a distressed caller, they will remain on the line until paramedics arrive.”
Dispatchers are “not required” to stay on the line with a caller for every 911 call, the statement said.
“Instead, they use their training and discretion to evaluate if that is needed or not. No two events are ever the same,” AHS said.
“With regards to this specific event, AHS audited the call and response and found that the dispatcher complied with all protocols, which again, are the same as the ones the City of Red Deer used before dispatch transitioned to AHS in January.”
Burkin said Ray, 69, has been a diabetic most of his life so he has multiple health issues. He doesn’t have the same heart attack symptoms others have because of his long-term diabetes, and that night he had those symptoms.
She was not sure of Ray’s diagnosis. Once he was taken to Red Deer hospital emergency department, he was quickly treated, and was home by 4 a.m. the next day. But she was still distressed that the Calgary dispatcher didn’t stay on the phone with her until the ambulance arrived.
“That to me is totally unacceptable. If I need you, I need you now,” Burkin said.
Burkin sent letters condemning her dispatch experience to Premier Jason Kenney, Red Deer-North MLA Adriana LaGrange, Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer, and NDP leader Rachel Notley.