Mayor Tara Veer pleads with the premier Tuesday to review the decision to move to a consolidated EMS dispatch system, which will be moved to three centres across the province. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Mayor Tara Veer pleads with the premier Tuesday to review the decision to move to a consolidated EMS dispatch system, which will be moved to three centres across the province. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

‘Issue of life and death’: mayors plead with government to halt consolidated EMS dispatch

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer calls on premier to overturn consolidated EMS dispatch decision

There were no minced words by the mayors of Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge and Wood Buffalo.

Upset with Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s decision to proceed with consolidating EMS dispatch after what they feel was a lack of consultation, the mayors vowed Tuesday to keep fighting.

They will meet with their local MLAs this week and hope Premier Jason Kenney will address their concerns immediately.

“Minister Shandro’s decision to override local concerns and not intervene is perhaps one of the single most impactful and egregious decisions that I have witnessed in my 16 years in local government,” said Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of life and death.”

The communities, which are served by integrated municipal ambulance dispatch, will be served by Alberta Health Services emergency communications centres in Peace River, Edmonton and Calgary on Jan. 4.

Shandro wrote to the mayors Friday, outlining the government’s decision to move forward with consolidation. He last met with the group on Sept. 24.

“My decision is to not overturn AHS’ decision and I look forward to supporting them and your municipalities during the transition to ensure that emergency health services in your community can improve,” he wrote.

Veer said Shandro’s decision overlooked many of the key points the mayors have brought up for weeks and vowed they’ll keep fighting for their communities. She noted the AHS consolidated call centres could experience an increase of up to 200,000 calls per year.

“It is slower, it risks calls being dropped and will result in emergency vehicles being delayed,” Veer said.

The rest of the province was switched to AHS dispatch in 2009.

Following recommendations of the Health Quality Council of Alberta in 2013, as well as the AHS performance review by Ernst and Young last year, the decision was made to end the current EMS dispatch system for the affected municipalities.

Red Deer was notified in August that the province planned to end local dispatch and has since launched a campaign, along with the other communities, to battle against consolidation.

In September, Veer said Red Deer’s current model was regarded nationally and internationally for its “efficiency and most importantly, patient-first approach.”

She reiterated that claim Tuesday.

According to the city, Red Deer’s 911 Emergency Communications Centre dispatches emergency ambulance services 18 to 21 seconds faster than the AHS emergency communications centre in Edmonton.

Last quarter, the AHS communications centre averaged a dispatch time of 90 seconds, while Red Deer averaged 65 seconds.

Veer said there was a case just this past Thanksgiving weekend when an advanced life support fire unit waited four minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

“We know the longer it takes for an ambulance to be dispatched, the worse it is for patient outcomes, especially in life and death circumstances, where seconds are absolutely critical,” said Veer, adding that in most cases, AHS doesn’t reach its own 90-second standard response time.

In the letter, Shandro addressed some of the concerns of the communities, including previous decisions to overturn consolidation and medical-first response.

“The claim that safety and efficiency require all dispatchers to be in the same room is out of date; it ignores how ambulance services have evolved across Canada and in other countries,” Shandro wrote to the four municipalities.

“Today’s computer-assisted dispatch technology allows multiple services to be co-ordinated seamlessly regardless of where the dispatchers physically sit or who employs them.”

On four occasions in the past, health ministers have overturned the AHS decision to consolidate the four municipalities, but the health minister did not see the need to do so now.

Shandro said while the decision wasn’t budget related, it is expected to save the province $6.2 million per year.

As for the next steps, Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman suggested that a third-party review could help the government see the issue from the perspective of the four municipalities.

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