Mayor Don Scott and the mayors of Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge urged Premier Jason Kenney to reverse Alberta Health Service’s plan to replace local EMS dispatchers with a centralized dispatch system.
The system, which was introduced by the former PC government in 2009 and covers most of Alberta, is based from call centres in Calgary, Edmonton and Peace River. The Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region falls under the system on Jan. 19.
Mayor Tara Veer of Red Deer said at a Monday press conference the mayors have done everything they can to campaign against the switch.
“Premier, there is still time to do the right thing,” she said. “We want to let it be known that Albertans will rue the day that this change happened in our province.”
Scott said the four cities have tried “endlessly” to reverse the plan, which was announced by AHS in August. More than 2,500 people in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo area have written letters to Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, he said. Scott said he has not heard of anyone getting a response.
“This government continues to ignore our voice on this issue,” said Scott. “The UCP government is pushing through a reckless plan that will cost lives and degrade our level of patient care.”
In September, the four mayors met with Shandro, then-Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard and AHS Chief Paramedic Darren Sandbeck to argue in favour of keeping dispatch services local.
Emergency response leaders have also rejected the program, arguing it slows response times and dispatchers will not be familiar with the communities.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi suggested the change should at least be paused until the pandemic ends.
He also blasted the system for not having “co-evaluation,” which allows dispatchers for fire, police and EMS to listen in on a call simultaneously. Under the AHS system, police or firefighter support can still be requested by dispatchers.
Nenshi doubted his father’s life would have been was saved under the centralized approach. He did not go into details about the medical emergency, only adding that medics with the Calgary Fire Department arrived at the scene before paramedics thanks to co-evaluation.
“Time and time again, Alberta Health Services has shown that they are more concerned with the bureaucratic desire for control over this element in the system that observing a system that works and keeps people safe,” he said.
Despite the pleas, the province has shown no interest in reversing course. In October, Shandro told the mayors centralizing dispatchers would move ahead. AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson also said there will be no changes in a Monday email.
“We respect the Mayors’ concerns and have worked hard to answer them,” said Steve Buick, Shandro’s press secretary, in an email.
He said integrating will align the cities with best practices in the rest of Alberta, as well as other provinces and countries. Buick insisted integration “makes sense and will serve patients better.”
AHS is working with the communities to make sure there is a smooth transition, said Buick. Any money saved will be invested into improving ambulance services.
However, Wood Buffalo’s council has offered to pay to keep the service local. A similar offer has been made by Lethbridge’s council.
– With files from Vincent McDermott