Alberta's health boss says the province is monitoring rural ambulance service delivery after a southern Alberta emergency services commission warned a centralized dispatch system is putting lives in jeopardy.
The Foothills Regional Emergency Services Commission (FRESC), which serves 26 municipalities and 33 fire stations stretching from Lake Louise to Fort Macleod, has raised the alarm over soaring ambulance response times since ambulance dispatch moved to a consolidated call centre operated by Alberta Health Services in Calgary, pleading with Health Minister Sarah Hoffman to return to a local service.
The public body has launched a website demanding a return to regional dispatching and charge the switch to a centralized call centre on Feb. 21 has resulted in delays of up to an hour before they even notify rural fire departments when an ambulance is not available, along with numerous errors with information that in some cases has resulted in dangerously long response times.
Hoffman was not available for an interview Monday, but said in a statement the province is aware of the concerns raised by rural municipalities and is keeping an eye on the issue.
"The safety of Albertans is always our first priority. The transition of EMS dispatch in southern Alberta from a City of Calgary facility to an AHS facility is recent, but follows similar transitions across the province over previous years," she said.
"We are aware of concerns raised by local leaders. We are monitoring the situation closely, and our expectation is that AHS maintain response times."
According to FRESC, since AHS consolidated the service, the standard set by the National Fire Protection Association of dispatching calls requiring medical first response within 90 seconds, 90 per cent of the time is only hitting that target in four per cent of cases.
Suzanne Oel, chair of FRESC as well as a Municipal District of Foothills councillor, couldn't be reached Monday, but previously told Postmedia the transition has had a devastating impact on its operations.
"The consolidation hasn't worked. The quality of our patient care is degrading before our eyes," she said.
"It shows up as a lack of co-ordinated response and a reduction in communications, and the results are life-threatening delays."
But AHS Chief Paramedic Darren Sandbeck, who noted he couldn't refute FRESC's numbers as he only has access to the health authority's data, said the centralized service boasts the latest mapping technology and is able to quickly determine the severity of each call and dispatch the proper response based on real-time information.
He said the main issue communities seem to be struggling with is a change of process that they're not used to.
"I really think this is an issue of process change. We have put a process in place for organizations like FRESC and other to raise these issues in nearly real-time so we're able to investigate," Sandbeck said.
"I know there are critics, but it's a strong model that keeps patient health at the forefront."
FRESC pointed to three troubling incidents since the change over that they've blamed on the consolidated call centre, and Sandbeck acknowledged in two of the cases (the third couldn't be verified) the health authority is to blame.
"There was some human error in a couple of circumstances," he said, adding employees have been spoken to and sent for additional training.
Pat Steir, Wildrose MLA for Livingstone-Macleod, said rural ambulance services has long been an issue, and one he raised yet again last week in the Alberta legislature. He said the province needs to step in and repair a system that won't be fixed without a return to local dispatch services.
"In my view, I think they need to realize they've got themselves a white elephant here and they need to go back to local control," he said.