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CDES fire chief says call handling times “unacceptable” since move to centralized dispatch

Posted on December 22, 2022 by Sunny South News

By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News

Coaldale’s fire chief continues to sound the alarm on the impact of centralized dispatch and other issues impacting the delivery of emergency services in Coaldale.

Director of Protective Services, Fire Chief, and Deputy CAO, Kevin McKeown said one of the biggest challenges to the fire service since the province moved to centralized dispatch is “the lack of interoperability between fire and EMS in regards to radio communications and the delay for medical calls to be processed by Calgary EMS Dispatch, transferred to Lethbridge Public Safety Communications then finally the call request for a fire response.”

“We are consistently observing call handling times of four to six minutes between the two dispatch agencies before the tones go out for our service to respond,” McKeown said.

As crucial minutes slip away, the impact is tangible, and increases in call volume means delays are happening more frequently. McKeown said four to six minutes “is unacceptable when there is a critical patient waiting for emergency care.”

Local data from 2023 reflects a record-high number of code red events in town and sharp increases in both call volumes and red code events.

Now, it’s nearly two years after Alberta Health Services took over the EMS dispatch system. In February 2021, just one month after AHS assumed control, several municipalities, including the City of Lethbridge, began reporting an uptick in delays and urged for the return to a regional model. From 2009 to 2021, 60 per cent of the province operated under a centralized model in an effort to standardize EMS dispatch in Alberta. In 2021, the remaining municipalities of Wood Buffalo, Calgary, Lethbridge, and Red Deer were onboarded to the centralized system.

The centralized dispatch model continues to pose challenges to Coaldale’s Fire Department, but McKeown said the solution to reduce call handling times could be achieved by reverting to the previous regional model. McKeown said, “returning EMS dispatch to Lethbridge Public Safety Communications Centre (PSCC) would help reduce the call handling time for medical first response incidents for our local fire services and increase efficiency between fire and EMS.”

At a recent delegation before council, McKeown presented Q3 data for 2022, which revealed an even sharper uptick in code red incidents compared to 2021. The report showed that in 2021, there were 33 code red events in Coaldale. McKeown told SSN in Nov. 2021, the Province had assured EMS workers and residents that the choice to move away from running emergency medical services locally would not result in a degradation of service. Following the 2021 Q3 statistics, McKeown said, “what we’ve witnessed over the last 11 years has been a slow-moving train wreck.”

Though McKeown was sounding the alarm on code reds and call volumes over a year ago, the data for 2022 shows the data on continues to trend upward surpassing previous years in a “significant” way.

“As of the end of September 2022, there have been 65 code reds. This is already a 100 per cent increase from 2021, and the last quarter of the year has yet to be included in the count. If we look back from 2018, our year-to-date number of 65 code reds is a 364 per cent increase.”

Cumulative data for all of 2022, including Q4, will be released in the new year, but according to McKeown, the first nine months of the year reveal “far too often Coaldale ambulances are unavailable to respond to emergencies in their own community. The demand on our local EMS resources has significantly increased over the years which means Coaldale ambulances are frequently called to emergencies outside of the Town of Coaldale, such as the City of Lethbridge, Raymond, Taber, and Picture Butte,” and added the demand from Lethbridge is “significantly higher than any other jurisdiction.”

McKeown added that despite all of this, there are improvements on the horizon. There are some positive changes currently happening in AHS EMS. One such change will see a complete schedule overhaul for all EMS crews by Jan. 2023, as both local ambulances adopt 12-hour shifts.

McKeown said moving away from the 96-hour shifts “should help alleviate some downtime due to no longer having core/flex hours where the ambulance can get ‘timed out’, meaning they have worked too many hours in a day and must shut the ambulance down for fatigue management.” McKeown is hopeful this change will decrease the number of code reds, but added, the department will need to review impacts once 2023’s Q1 data is available.

With the increased visibility of the challenges being faced by emergency services workers and staff, McKeown said there has also been movement on the leadership front to mitigate and address ongoing concerns.

He said, “It is refreshing to see the current government making some changes, and AHS EMS delivering on some of their promises for better EMS service for Albertans. Much work is yet to be done on improving healthcare in Alberta, EMS is one small piece of a larger issue.”

Advocacy at the municipal and provincial levels continues to play an important role in making improvements to EMS and healthcare in Coaldale.

“I am grateful for the strong advocating our Mayor and Council have been doing. I believe they have successfully raised Coaldale specific health care issues with the government and continue to work to enhance the available health services in Coaldale,” and added Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter “has been a great advocate,” as well. He said residents can continue to advocate for improved health services in the Coaldale region by connecting with their MLA and providing feedback to emergency services administration, and/or council.

Despite regulatory challenges, McKeown said, “our fire department is a resilient and extremely dedicated group of people; we serve the residents of Coaldale and Lethbridge County with pride every single day. We are very grateful for our volunteer/paid-on-call firefighters who continue to respond and serve to the best of their ability during the past few years of significant demand.”

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