'Never seen it like this': EMS staff shortage triggers four red alerts in Calgary

A city paramedic told Postmedia staff shortages have become the norm in recent months

Jason Herring 4 minute read December 7, 2021

An ambulance heads toward the Foothills Medical Centre on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Critics are raising concerns over Alberta’s EMS response times after Calgary saw four red alerts on Saturday amid ongoing staff shortages.

A red alert is issued when there are no ambulances available to respond to emergency calls in a jurisdiction. According to the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), which posts alerts to a Twitter account, this type of alert happened four times in Calgary Saturday. On that day, additional ambulances from 12 municipalities as far away as Banff were dispatched to Calgary to field calls in the city.

Speaking to media Monday, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley called EMS response times a “crisis.” She said an increase in calls amid the COVID-19 pandemic is one factor behind the overwhelmed system, but noted that the province must hire more frontline staff to keep up with that demand.

“The system is under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Notley said. “As government, at the end of the day what they should be doing is looking at how to solve the crisis . . . and coming up with the solutions that will ensure that Albertans get the ambulance response and the ambulance care they need when they need it.”

Red alerts have become routine in Calgary, with the HSAA posting about a red alert being issued for the city 53 times across 22 days during November and at least one each day since Friday. A city paramedic not authorized to speak publicly told Postmedia that staff shortages have become the norm in recent months, leading to consequences for patient care.

That’s a concern for Calgarian Marcello Di Cintio, whose 95-year-old grandmother waited an hour for paramedics to arrive after a fall Saturday. While Di Cintio said the slow response may in part be due to family communicating to EMS dispatchers the situation wasn’t immediately urgent, he said the delay could have had serious consequences.

“What if she had broken something? What if she had fallen because of a heart attack?” Di Cintio said. “What infuriates me first, of course, was my grandmother. But when I found out that no one in Calgary had an ambulance available several times during that day — that’s insanity.”

Alberta Health Services said in a statement Monday EMS calls are prioritized based on severity of the medical condition or injury described by the caller, but that the response to that call was longer than it should have been. They said there has been an “unprecedented increase” in emergency calls in recent months but that red alerts are a concern, even if they only last for a short period.

“We are ensuring that the most critical patients are prioritized for receiving immediate care,” AHS said.

“During a red alert, AHS EMS responds to emergencies by using tactics such as repositioning units from other communities, deferring non-urgent transfers, deploying supervisors and using single paramedic response units as needed.”

An ambulance responding to an emergency drives along 14th Street S.W. on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Brendan Miller/Postmedia

Local pressures in Calgary are also having an impact on communities whose ambulances are being called upon to respond to emergencies out of their jurisdiction.

Canmore Fire Fighters Association president Steve Westlake said all eight of the city’s full-time firefighters are trained paramedics, a decision made a decade ago in order to retain local medical capabilities when the town divested its EMS response to AHS.

When ambulances leave Canmore, firefighters have to provide on-site care to patients, routinely waiting for ambulances to arrive from Banff or Kananaskis which can bring patients to hospital if they need additional, sometimes critical treatment.

“When we’re missing crews because they’re doing calls in the city, that’s very unfortunate to our local citizens,” Westlake said. “We don’t replace the ambulance. We help them. We’re sort of an unofficial stopgap, but we can’t transport in a firetruck.”

Those worries were echoed by Alberta Fire Fighters Association president Matt Osborne, who said EMS shortages are like “a game of dominos” being felt across the province’s emergency response system.

There are even recent incidents where fire crews have waited on scene for upwards of 90 minutes for paramedics to arrive, Osborne said.

“I’ve been a firefighter for over 20 years now and I’ve never seen it like this with EMS response times,” he said. “We’re no longer at the breaking point. It’s been broken for quite a while. And now with paramedics being stressed out, we need more paramedics and we need more ambulances to serve the community.”

Osborne said he’s reaching out to government to work towards remedies for the problem, which he says is seeing municipal fire services covering off for the provincial EMS.

AHS said it has increased paramedic staffing by nine per cent over the last two years, from 2,659 in 2019 to 2,891 in 2021. They said EMS has added staff and created and filled 30 full-time and 70 temporary part-time paramedic jobs in the province and is offering overtime to staff who are willing.

The health authority also acknowledged pressures on other front-line workers.

“We recognize that the increase in 911 call volume to EMS likely also has an impact on our first responder partners. We value these partnerships and are in touch with colleagues in police departments, fire departments and our Medical First Response partners on a regular basis.”


Twitter: @jasonfherring


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