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Every day, emergency medical services professionals in Alberta respond to more than 1,000 calls for an emergency or to transfer a patient between care settings. Their sole focus is to get the right people where they’re needed at the right time, every time. Any change we consider will always support them in doing that.
Recently, I sat down with the mayors of Calgary, Fort McMurray, Lethbridge and Red Deer to talk about ambulance dispatch in their communities. I told the mayors what I’ve told Albertans: I think integrating ambulance dispatch into Alberta Health Services makes sense.
In fact, except for those 4 cities, that integration happened 10 years ago, as part of the integration of EMS into the health system. AHS already dispatches ambulances for about 60% of Alberta’s population, including cities like Medicine Hat and Edmonton.
AHS has 3 EMS dispatch centres – in Peace River, Edmonton and Calgary – that were set up to cover the whole province. Integrating the remaining dispatch services will make the system work better and save money that will be reinvested right back into improving ground-ambulance services. Most importantly, the evidence I’ve seen shows it won’t change response times or cause delays for ambulances or other first responders.
AHS already dispatches over most of the geographic area of the province, and the system works well: it saves millions of dollars a year; it’s as fast as – or faster than – municipal dispatch, and it uses best practices and the latest equipment. By adding Calgary, Fort McMurray, Lethbridge and Red Deer, AHS will be able to create a fully integrated system.
The mayors who oppose the change claim integration will result in service delays. This is untrue. Monthly reports on calls to 911 show calls are answered in less than 10 seconds, 95% of the time; AHS ambulance dispatch has never had a 911 call waiting in a queue.
I disagree with the conclusions the 4 mayors have come to, but I respect their concerns and the information they shared, and so I am committed to reviewing their concerns and getting back to them before the transition begins.
Some have also claimed that callers will be forced to “repeat what they say.” Again, that’s simply not the case. What will actually change? When you call 911 and need an ambulance, the operator will transfer the request to an AHS dispatcher instead of a city one. That’s it. Callers will not notice any change.
Response times will also not change. Right now, ambulances typically reach their destination in 8 minutes or less in Edmonton and Calgary – they’re both at or below the target of 8 minutes for the 2 metro areas. Both cities are also within the 90-second target for the dispatch process itself. The same is true for the smaller cities: dispatch and overall response times are all within target, whether AHS or the city handles dispatch. I don’t see any reason to think that dispatch times will get longer in the cities where the function is being transitioned to AHS.
Ten years ago, the province launched Alberta Health Services, a single health service delivery system. The intent was to create a borderless system to provide common standards of service to all Albertans and to make the most efficient use of skilled people and expensive resources. It’s the right model; we’ve seen its strength in many different areas over the past decade, including in the response to the pandemic.
We integrated EMS into AHS for all the same reasons. It was a good decision. Paramedics are health-care professionals and EMS is an essential part of the health system. But we left the dispatch function fragmented, within a system that’s integrated all around it.
Ten years later, finding ways to run our health-care system more efficiently while improving patient care is more critical than ever, and we cannot ignore an opportunity to do so.
Tyler Shandro served as Minister of Health from April 30, 2019 to September 21, 2021.