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Judge grants interim injunction to Alberta government in EMS dispatch dispute

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FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — A judge says a northern municipality must resume transferring emergency medical calls to a provincial dispatch centre by noon on Saturday.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Kent Davidson heard a joint application from Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services, which delivers health care in the province, to require the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to send medical calls to AHS dispatch.

He granted an interim injunction until the full case can be heard.

"The public interest weighs very heavily in this case," Davidson said Friday in his decision.

"There is a strong public interest in the enforcement of the law and … the position of the applicant in this matter seems to be stronger."

The municipality, which includes Fort McMurray, stopped transferring calls at noon Thursday after its council decided the provincial ambulance dispatch service is putting patients at risk due to delays and confusion.

It came after the province consolidated emergency medical dispatch services to save money, and forced Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge and Wood Buffalo to make the change in January despite their objections.

Lawyers for the government argued Friday that Wood Buffalo wasn't following the Emergency Health Services Act by refusing to send calls to the provincial dispatch centre.

"The municipality appears to be acting illegally," said Sean McDonough, who represented Alberta Health.

"They may think it's better policy on their end, but … there's a strong case it's not lawful."

Chris Davis, a lawyer for Wood Buffalo, argued it's in the public interest for the municipality to keep handling emergency medical calls through its dispatch centre, which also deals with fire calls.

"The regional municipality has been operating a dispatch centre since 1979," he said. "It's only been in the last three weeks where we haven't operated a dispatch centre for EMS purposes."

Davis suggested that the municipality can operate it legally under a separate piece of legislation called the Emergency 911 Act.

The judge called it a novel argument.

"It's clear that Alberta Health Services and Alberta Health were unaware of this argument up until today," said Davidson, noting the municipality should have an opportunity to flush it out further.

The hearing for a permanent injunction was set for March 9-12.

Mayor Don Scott of the regional municipality said he respects Friday's decision.

"This does not mean the province is better at dispatching ambulances," he said in a statement. "It just means that the provincial government is willing to force us to comply."

Scott said he's concerned the temporary decision will negatively affect patient outcomes in the region.

"Wood Buffalo has a proud history of resilience and solidarity, and in this unprecedented situation, I appreciate that the court of public opinion weighs heavily in our favour," he said. "I remain resolved to continue this fight in the courts of Alberta."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Feb. 12, 2021.

— By Colette Derworiz in Edmonton.

The Canadian Press