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Ambulance coverage concerns, fixes highlighted for Canmore council

“We need an infusion of new resources. One of two things need to happen. We need to get out of the hospitals in a more timely fashion or add new resources. The true solution is doing both.”
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An Alberta Health Services ambulance drive along 8 Avenue in Canmore on Thursday (Sept. 9). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – A long-awaited meeting between Alberta Health Services and Canmore council provided feedback on the ongoing work to improve ambulance coverage in the community and throughout the Bow Valley.

Though work is being done to offset available resources where and when possible, council heard one of the largest issues is the lack of new resources – ambulances, SUV trucks and staff – being provided to Emergency Medical Services (EMS) across the province.

“We haven’t really been with new resources since 2009. The resource compliment has been relatively the same,” said Randy Bryksa, the associate executive director for EMS operations in the Calgary zone. “We have made changes in re-purposing inter-facility transport resources into the community to buffer that. We’re exhausting all our potential resources of reallocating within our existing system.

“We need an infusion of new resources. One of two things need to happen. We need to get out of the hospitals in a more timely fashion or add new resources. The true solution is doing both.”

Bryksa noted EMS has consistently worked to lobby the provincial government and all MLAs in the Calgary zone as well as appearing as delegates in the majority of the municipalities.

“It will continue to be a challenge going forward. We are doing the best we can to get additional resources, but to date we have not been successful,” he said.

Coun. Joanna McCallum highlighted how despite Canmore’s population growing and visitation only increasing, the resources have not kept pace, especially since the Town of Canmore divested itself of ambulances in 2012.

“As our population has increased and visitation has increased and we’ve endured a pandemic, our resources for ambulances locally, not just in Canmore but Banff as well as Lake Louise … we still have the resources we had in 2009.”

Bryksa was joined by Curtis Swanson, the director of operations for Calgary EMS and Rob Jabs, the operations manager for the northeast Calgary zone, which includes the Bow Valley corridor.

He said there has been an “unprecedented increase” in 911 calls, which have led to a 30 per cent jump over the last nine months, noting prolonged hospital wait times have increased as call volumes have risen.

While there is $40 million committed to new ambulances and SUVs over the next two years, delays in production line issues and vehicle computer chip problems have led to long delivery times for new vehicles.

“We have a situation where I have money, but I can’t get the products and ambulances to put crews into,” Bryksa said. “They’re starting to trickle in, but it’s a global problem all EMS is experiencing trying to get to the front of the line.”

It was noted how the reallocation of resources has helped in some aspects. Those involve alternative transit methods other than paramedics when a low-risk patient needs to be moved. Following the success of an ongoing trial in northern Alberta has seen success, plans are in place for the Calgary zone to launch a similar pilot next month, Bryksa said.

A triage for 911 calls is also set to come into effect where low-risk calls will be delayed to prioritize more high-risk scenarios, but would still see the low-risk patient called every 15 minutes until an ambulance is available.

An integrated operations centre is also planned for March to act as an “air traffic control” to help better direct patients heading to different Calgary-area hospitals. Bryksa also said increasing transports to urgent care centres in areas such as Cochrane or Airdrie is also being run and aimed to keep ambulances in communities for longer.

“My team is doing the best we can with the resources we have available,” Bryksa said. “We’re re-purposing where we can, but there’s a limit to that. It’s showing with the strain on the system never having been greater. We continue to see strain. We’re hiring as many as we can who are available to do work in the EMS sector.”

As many communities across Alberta have experienced, Canmore is often without one or both of the ambulances that are meant to be stationed in the municipality. In the case of Bow Valley communities such as Banff and Canmore, their ambulances are frequently called to assist in Calgary, leaving a safety risk for both residents and visitors.

The resulting absence of local ambulances has led to both Banff Fire Department and Canmore Fire-Rescue to respond to medical calls.

Though councillors brought forward the hope of adding resources locally, especially as the community grows and tourism increases, Lake Louise will likely be first on the list when more crews become available. If it were to happen, it would help offset Banff paramedics since they respond to Lake Louise.

Bryksa said an ambulance had been allocated under the NDP government, but was redistributed after the UCP won the provincial election.

The call volume has largely been consistent year round in the area, but area paramedics can help in Canmore when there are spikes in the region.

“We do have resources in Banff, Kananaskis and Nakoda that will buffer the system in Canmore, just like Canmore buffers some of the other communities when we have those anomalies when we have a day that has a spike in call volume,” Jabs said. “There will be days when we have five calls in a five-minute period that could potentially overwhelm the resources in the community and that’s where we shuffle the resources in surrounding communities.”

According to Canmore Fire-Rescue's statistics from the past four years, ambulances stationed in Canmore have responded to 1,050 calls – 66.8 per cent being in Canmore and the remainder elsewhere during 2018. Since then, it has steadily responded to more calls outside Canmore.

In 2019, local ambulances answered 1,131 calls, of which 69.1 per cent were in Canmore. However, in 2020, of the 1,219 calls in Canmore, 59.9 per cent were local. Through Sept. 30 2021, Canmore ambulances  responded to 1,237 calls, with only 46 per cent being local.

Bryksa presented data that had ambulances responding to 1,443 calls from April 1 2020 to March 31, 2021, with July to September being the busiest stretch at 429 calls.

Of those, 76 per cent were responded to by Canmore paramedics, while 17 per cent came from Banff. Three per cent also came from each of Calgary and Cochrane. Statistics had 90 per cent of the calls being answered in 15 minutes or less.

Locally, the Bow Valley EMS Crisis Citizen Action Group has advocated for better ambulance coverage. The Health Sciences Association of Alberta – ­ a union of healthcare workers that includes paramedics – regularly posts when a community is without ambulance coverage.

According to data from the Health Quality Council of Alberta, median response times for life-threatening events for smaller communities in the Calgary zone have increased from about 7:30 in April 2019 to 10:15 in Sept. 2021.