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The problem isn’t dispatching, it’s a shortage of ambulances

Having worked in EMS for more than 43 years, and having lobbied for improved EMS for more than 10 years now, I would like to respond to the ongoing controversy over the plan to consolidate EMS dispatch.

Until about 10 years ago, each municipality individually dispatched their own ambulances. The province took over dispatch, except for four municipalities that hung on: Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Wood Buffalo.

Now, 10 years later, the province is finally going to be co-ordinating ambulance dispatch in the whole province.

The mayors of these municipalities have strongly opposed this move.

They have cried that Minister Tyler Shandro and Premier Jason Kenney will have blood on their hands and lives will be lost.

We hear, “It’s an issue of life and death. It could cause delays in co-ordinated response. It may increase fire response by 90 seconds. People are going to die.”

Give me a break. Whether the dispatcher is employed by the province or the municipality, is not a life and death issue.

Here’s a reality check.

Mayors, people are dying now. When your city is in daily code red and has no ambulances available to respond, know that all surrounding communities don’t either, because those ambulances have been sucked into your city to do calls.

You have frustrated ambulance crews stuck in hospital hallways, with their patients, for hours, and even shifts, on end and unable to respond.

You have dispatchers desperately trying to find a unit to respond to stacked up calls for help.

Although EMS management comforts us with, “We always have an ambulance available to respond, and Albertans will get the nearest ambulance,” we see ambulances responding from Vulcan, and even Claresholm, to Calgary, from Calgary to Cochrane and Airdrie, and farther, for emergencies.

This computes to response times of 30 minutes, an hour, and even more.

Was there a tidal wave of people dying in Edmonton post-consolidation of dispatch? Nope. But there are real people, today, dying while waiting for that elusive “nearest ambulance.”

Where is your outcry? Where is your demand for improvement to EMS? Where is your concern for your constituents?

To the mayors: Get out of your office and educate yourselves. Go tour the central dispatch centres and see the technology that is there and how it functions.

The move to consolidate EMS dispatch is a small but necessary step that will improve co-ordination in the system. It does not make sense for 40 per cent of the province to be dispatched by the cities and the rest by the province.

Now it’s incumbent on Minister Shandro to take the $6 million in savings and do something useful with it. He has committed to doing just that and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what he does.

Maybe we can finally get paramedics out of the hospital hallways for hours on end. Or maybe we can finally invest in actual solutions to the deteriorating mental health of our frontline EMS staff.

Or maybe we can actively do something to address the profound lack of leadership we have with layers upon layers of managers in the system.

EMS is broken and there is a lot of work to be done to fix it. All this political posturing makes me think that perhaps this isn’t about patient care, or improving EMS dispatch. Perhaps it’s about something else.

George Porter is a Glenwood resident.

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