St. Albert ambulances responded to more calls in Edmonton than they did in St. Albert in 2021, but the mayor said recent changes to the EMS system will likely see ambulances stay in their home cities more often.
On Thursday, the Alberta NDP released findings that show the St. Albert fire department responded to 2,511 calls (41.7 per cent) in St. Albert between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, and responded to 2,929 calls (48.7 per cent) in Edmonton in the same time frame. Another 9.5 per cent of calls brought St. Albert ambulances to other jurisdictions.
St. Albert mayor and Alberta Municipalities president Cathy Heron said she isn’t shocked to see those numbers, but expected more recent data to show St. Albert emergency vehicles staying in the city more often.
“I wasn't surprised. I've been to ride-alongs with them and that's been my experience. We have responded to more calls in Edmonton than we have in St. Albert,” Heron said.
During one ride-along experience with the St. Albert EMS team six years ago, Heron said the ambulance and team spent the day in Edmonton and St. Albert went into a code red — where there are no ambulances available to respond to a call.
In December 2021, Heron did another ride-along and she said the ambulance and team spent half the time in Edmonton and the other half in St. Albert.
Between April 1, 2022, and May 16, 2022, St. Albert EMS responded to 407 calls (56 per cent) in St. Albert, compared to only 223 (30 per cent) in Edmonton, a stark difference from the year before.
This change is due to ambulance services now only responding to severe or extreme-level calls in other jurisdictions, rather than to every call that comes in, Heron said. The change came in February of this year, the mayor said, and now ambulance dispatch priorities have changed to help keep EMS from getting pulled into the big cities.
“In December our first call of the day, when I went on my ride-along, was to a seniors’ facility in Edmonton because somebody had fallen and impacted his tooth. That is not [an extreme-level] call, so we would not have been called in [under the new changes],” Heron said.
Ambulance services across the province have been stretched for the past few years, with both Alberta Municipalities and the Rural Municipalities of Alberta passing resolutions in the fall to improve ambulance services in Alberta.
Many communities suffered from lengthy wait times for emergency responders as paramedics were drawn into Edmonton and Calgary. Alberta has a regional approach to ambulance services, which means the first available paramedic team will respond to a call.
Due to this regional approach, ambulance services from one jurisdiction often respond to another community's crisis.
But Heron said once a St. Albert ambulance responds to a call in Edmonton, it is tough to escape back to its community of origin, because the service then responds to calls in Edmonton because they are in the vicinity.
As a result, ambulance services from Morinville may respond to calls in St. Albert, leaving the ambulance services from Westlock or Barrhead to respond to Morinville, causing a cascading effect across the province.
As ambulances get stuck in more populated centres, few resources are left for rural communities.
While current response locations highlighted in the data from the NDP show recent challenges, Heron said it's a good thing the province shares resources when it comes to emergency services.
“This is a provincial system. It will cost a lot of money to have enough ambulances to serve Edmonton while ours are sitting idle,” Heron said.
The mayor sits on a provincial committee — known as the Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee — along with Alberta Health Services officials and representatives from across Alberta to help tackle the challenges in emergency services.
The issues faced are complex systems problems across the province, Heron said.
“It's not an ambulance issue, it’s a health-care issue,” Heron said.
Retaining and attracting paramedics is difficult, Heron said, because the job is super stressful and there are a lot of mental-health challenges.
Alberta's family doctors are disappearing, and Albertans will let their health issues build up, then require emergency services, when the problem could have been tackled earlier by a primary-care physician, Heron said.
Some Albertans also misuse the emergency-response system, Heron said, such as when residents call 911 instead of calling 811 for more information.
“There's a lot of education that I think is going to start ramping up about who you should call,” Heron said.
Often ambulances are used to transport a patient from one hospital to another, when they may only need a ride without the medical support, Heron said, and in rural communities the problem is made worse due to a lack of public transportation.
“If somebody is ill and needs to get a test done at another hospital, they go in an ambulance instead of some other kind of transportation option,” Heron said.
Once an ambulance arrives at the hospital, paramedics and patients often wait in hallways for hours until the sick patient can get a bed in an emergency room, Heron said.
And emergency rooms are full, said Heron, because they can’t get beds to admit patients to other areas of the health-care system.
The committee is looking at having paramedics at ER nursing stations to receive patients, so EMS workers can get back out on the roads to respond to more calls.
Changes for paramedics
On Thursday, June 9, St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud and NDP health critic David Shepherd called on the province take immediate action to help support ambulance services across Alberta.
“A shortage of ambulances means that paramedics and surrounding communities are being pulled into the city and getting stuck, and overwhelmed hospitals,” Renaud said.
Shepard said paramedics are asking to get off shift on time, an ongoing challenge which is causing burnout and exhaustion, along with dwindling numbers in the industry.
Paramedics also want to be offered permanent full-time jobs rather than casual contracts with no benefits or job security, Shepherd said.
The NDP is calling on the government to provide more harm-reduction services to ease the strain on ambulances and paramedics.
“The drug-poisoning crisis creates huge demand on ambulances and emergency rooms, and this is preventable,” Shepherd said.
Ambulance services and response times were in the news again recently after it took an ambulance 30 minutes to get to 86-year-old Betty Ann Williams, who was attacked by three dogs in Calgary. She died from her injuries.
AHS said Thursday an independent review will take place on the response to the fatal dog attack.
The Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee is expected to produce recommendations in July on how to further improve services in the province, Heron said.