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Canmore, Banff forming citizen action groups to protest lack of ambulance coverage

“Right now, every single day that this doesn’t change, people are getting hurt, people are suffering, people are dying,” said Don Sharpe, a registered paramedic in Alberta.
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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 citizen action group is being formed in Canmore to lobby the province to change the current system that is leaving the busy Bow Valley empty of ambulances several times a week and putting patients’ lives at risk.

Almost 25 people expressed interest in joining the action group following a town hall meeting in Canmore on Sept. 9. Another meeting is scheduled for Sept. 22 in Banff to outline the ambulance situation in that community.

Don Sharpe, a registered paramedic in Alberta who is the driving force behind several town hall-style meetings in communities around Calgary, said pressure won’t let up until Alberta Health Services (AHS) changes the way ambulances are dispatched.

“Right now, every single day that this doesn’t change, people are getting hurt, people are suffering, people are dying,” Sharpe said.

“People are coming to these town halls and telling stories of their family members and themselves having to wait, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour for an ambulance – that’s unacceptable.”

EMS paramedics and other health-care professionals are advocating for the two ambulances designated to serve Canmore to remain here instead of being called away to other locations such as Calgary and Cochrane, potentially for the entire day.

AHS’s current province-wide dispatch system for Emergency Medical Services (EMS) requires the closest ambulance to go on every call, regardless of the priority status of the patient.

Canmore ambulances are dispatched to Calgary from both the Canmore station and after clearing a city hospital. Local ambulances are also flexed to Cochrane, which means they are moving from station to station to adjust coverage.

In addition, paramedics are required to stay with a patient at city hospitals until a bed is available to treat the patient – commonly referred to as hallway waits – which can often take hours of time instead of heading back to Canmore.

"That's unconscionable, in my opinion, that the hospital can continue to hold our crews hostage,” Sharpe said.

As Canmore gets busier and visitation in neighbouring Kananaskis Country soars to more than five million people a year, ambulances are pulled away from the community to transfer patients to Calgary more often.

Canmore Fire-Rescue responded to 189 medical assist calls between Jan. 1 and Aug. 30, and was first on the scene ahead of ambulance crews in 107 of the calls.

A 26-year-old Canmore man who rode his bike into a pole at high speed at the intersection of Benchlands and Bow Valley trails on July 24 had to wait for an ambulance to arrive from Banff, which is about 25 kilometres away, because both of Canmore’s ambulance were in Calgary at the time.

Sharpe said it is alarming the number of times Calgary is in red alert, meaning there are no ambulances available to take calls. In 2020, Calgary had 3,324 red alerts and 36,570 orange alerts. The Outlook is working to get those numbers for Canmore.

“When Calgary is in red alert, know that in most cases every single ambulance service around Calgary is already in red alert,” Sharpe said. “As soon as your ambulances leave town, you’re in red alert.”

Dr. Nic Hamilton, an emergency room physician in the Bow Valley, said one of the reasons ambulances are leaving the community more often is services such as CT scans and ultrasounds are only available locally on weekdays.

“That means we end up using a lot of our ambulance crews to send patients for imaging on the weekend because you can’t wait until Monday,” he said during the town hall meeting.

“That’s when our crews are in the city and stuck in what we call a black hole of Calgary and just cannot escape and we’ve got no-one to respond.”

Hamilton said one of the unique problems facing the Bow Valley is the population explodes on weekends.

“Our town grows every weekend, and every weekend there’s way more calls and that’s when we run into trouble,” he said,.

“Like everyone else I like to go out in the mountains and have fun, but I know on the weekends there’s thousands of people up on the Spray Lakes, there’s thousands of people between here and Banff and beyond.”

Jay Anderson, a retired paramedic who spent decades in the profession, is organizing the Sept. 22 town hall meeting at Banff’s Royal Canadian Legion at 7 p.m.

He said ambulance service in Banff is impacted almost every day, noting the community is without ambulances at least two to three times a week.

Anderson said no consideration is accorded Banff with high summer visitation counts to maintain coverage nor on busy weekends with 15,000 people in ski areas.

“As in Canmore, Banff is sometimes without any ambulance, at times for hours on end,” he said.

Anderson said Mineral Springs Hospital does its utmost to resist this loss, but is bound by contract to dispatch ambulances elsewhere with little recourse to refuse.

“Banff EMS never fails to provide 24-hour coverage as per contract, and staff to support it,” he said.