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Amidst high call volumes, the EMS system in Alberta is under stress

‘Alberta Health Services Emergency Medical Services operates on a ‘borderless system’

By Kevin J, Sabo

For the Advance

The issues plaguing the Emergency Medical Services system across Alberta are influencing Castor.

According to East Central Ambulance Operations Manager Lorne Dewart, “East Central has been tasked to numerous other sites over the past few months.”

Known as ‘flexing,’ Alberta Health Services will move an ambulance in a smaller community to a larger one in cases where that community’s ambulance is either tied up running calls, or as has been happening lately, has had no staff to man the unit.

Alberta Health Services Emergency Medical Services operates on a ‘borderless system.’

This means that the closest available ambulance will receive the call, and that ambulances will be redistributed around the province to maximize coverage, such as has been happening with East Central Ambulance.

The Health Sciences Association of Alberta has created an HSAA EMS page on Facebook, which tracks ambulances either flexing from their home communities, or responding from great distances.

According to Dewart, the issue has two parts.

First there is a lack of staff industry-wide.

“There’s not enough bodies,” said Dewart.

“We have occasional staff shortages here, but it has been very short-term. I hope AHS can rectify the staffing issue with the influx of cash and their attempt to hire 100 new EMS bodies.”

The second part of the problem is an ever-increasing call volume.

In 2009, when East Central Ambulance Association first contracted to Alberta Health Services for Emergency Medical Service operations, the service ran around 257 inter-facility transfers and 182 emergency calls split between the service’s three stations in Castor, Coronation, and Consort.

Those call volumes are contrasted with the latest figures for the year ending July 31, 2021, where the service had run 692 inter-facility transfers, and 413 emergency calls.

“There is an increase in call volumes province-wide,” said Dewart.

“Services are bringing in more staff.”

When asked for comment, a representative from Alberta Health Services released this statement:

“EMS continues to see an unprecedented increase in emergency calls due to several combined factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid concerns, and emergency calls related to people returning to regular levels of activity. The funding for the 100 positions will help stabilize the EMS staff picture over the coming months as high system demand continues.”

Also noted in the press release, another factor impacting EMS staffing is “staff illness and fatigue” which are contributing “to challenges in the EMS system.”

“Anyone who needs EMS care will receive it. We are ensuring that the most critical patients are prioritized for receiving immediate care,” the release continued.

“System adjustments are made minute by minute to make the best use of existing resources.”

According to 2019 statistics, the latest found on the Alberta Health Services Emergency Medical Services website, response times in a rural area such as the County of Paintearth have a median response time of around 18 minutes, under the 20-minute target.

Communities under 3000, like Castor, which are tracked separately, show a median response time of around 17 minutes, over the 15-minute target.

If the HSAA EMS Facebook page is any indication, with the increasing call volumes and staff shortages, it is likely these times have increased over the past two years.

The one bright spot in the case of East Central Ambulance, is there is a built-in safety for the region, which states that Alberta Health Services must leave one of the service’s three ambulances in the area.

Dewart acknowledges that the past year and a half have been hard on everyone.

“We have very, very good staff working,” said Dewart.

“They have been working really long hours in a very trying time. They should be commended for the job they are doing.”