During their regular meeting on Oct. 5, Airdrie City council members discussed the issue of delayed EMS and ambulance response times following a presentation headed by Alberta Health Services (AHS) representatives.
Randy Bryksa, associate executive director with EMS Operations, said the organization has seen a 30 per cent increase in call volumes over the last six months.
“This trend is continuing, and it remains for us,” he told council. “It is one of the challenges that we are facing, and it has been sustained.
“We don’t believe it is isolated to COVID-19 – we believe this is the new norm of our response times moving forward.”
According to the council meeting’s agenda report, During the period of 2019 to 2021, local EMS response times increased from an average of eight minutes and five seconds per response to nine minutes and 45 seconds – an increase of 21 per cent.
“Over this same period, EMS response times have also become more variable, with a standard deviation going from three minutes, 52 seconds in 2019 to six minutes, 27 seconds through 2021,” the report stated. “These times were calculated using data available to [Airdrie Fire Department] which includes calls where AFD is dispatched.”
After hearing the presentation, Coun. Al Jones brought forward a number of anecdotal incidents he has heard about from residents, in which wait times were upwards of 20 minutes in some cases.
Bryksa said AHS is continuing to work on mitigation strategies to combat long wait times, which is an issue around the province.
In April 2009, AHS took over responsibility for ambulance governance and funding. Then, in July 2010, the health authority took over ambulance service delivery from the City of Airdrie.
AFD currently provides co-medical response with AHS to offer Airdrie citizens a multi-faceted approach to EMS delivery, according to the report.
According to Mayor Peter Brown, when AHS took over ambulance services in 2009, the number of available vehicles in Airdrie went from five to three.
“Service has been reduced and our population has doubled,” he said.
At this point, AHS said there is no additional budget in the system to add further resources to the City of Airdrie at this time.
Jones asked Bryksa if he feels AHS, in his opinion, is drastically short on resources and personnel.
“At this point, we are challenged with responding with the increase over the past six months,” Bryksa said. “We are looking at alternative strategies.”
Coun. Ron Chapman said back in 2010, when he first became a councillor, he was assured ambulance response times would remain the same under AHS, if not get faster.
“That obviously is not the case. Your response times are going up, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “Seconds matter [in these situations]. I take that very seriously.”
According to AHS, there are five challenges that add to the current issue of increased response times. A 30 per cent increase in 911 event volume, prolonged hospital waits, a fluctuation in EMS staffing levels, and moving suburban rural units outside of Calgary into Calgary.
“The fifth, a recent one that we are seeing that is creating some challenges, is specific to the pandemic,” Bryksa said. “It’s the amount of inter-facility transfer work that is occurring because of us trying to load level patients based on ICU capacity.”
Bryksa said current mitigation steps include hiring more staff and looking at decreasing the amount of inter-facility work being done to reallocate resources to support the 911 side. AHS recently announced $8.3 million in funding to maintain 100 EMS positions as a way to stabilize staffing as high call volumes continue.
The AHS rep also said the plan is to create an integrated operation centre.
“We are looking at input into the system, load-levelling to help distribute the ambulances equally among all of the hospitals to decrease the turnaround times and working with our hospitals on what we call through-put and output,” he said. “This will allow us to release our ambulances sooner into the system.”
Chapman said while there is a lot of frustration within the community about the issue, he does feel for the AHS workers and the current situation they are faced with.
“I couldn’t imagine being in the situation some of your paramedics are in,” he said.
Brown echoed that sentiment, saying he is thankful for anyone working in health care right now, considering everything going on within the sector.
“We completely recognize and have nothing but admiration and support for those who respond when we are in distress,” he said. “The challenge I’m facing is, we have had no resources for 11 years. If there is an ability for councils and mayors across the southern region to advocate on your behalf to increase resources, whatever that might be, we are not involved in the conversation, which has been a real challenge.”
According to Brown, the response time of ambulances in Airdrie is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“It is certainly becoming evident more and more from different residents in and outside of Airdrie that have been impacted by the delay of an ambulance, or one that doesn’t show up at all,” he said. “How can we help you get where you need to go so that we can provide the resources for a community like Airdrie? How can we progress together so that we can effectively petition the Government of Alberta so they know this is an issues that absolutely must be addressed? Because people’s lives are at stake.”
Jordan Stricker, AirdrieToday.com
Follow me on Twitter @Jay_Strickz