EMS dispatch problems plague Foothills residents
Health: City dispatchers having difficulty understanding rural addressing
Tuesday, Apr 05, 2011 02:43 pm
Two years after Alberta Health Services centralized rural EMS, kinks remain in the new dispatch system, described by some Foothills MD residents as a “complete failure.”
At about 10 a.m. on Jan. 16, Mark Teskey walked into the home of his father, David Teskey, to find him unconscious and not breathing.
He immediately called 911, but reached a Calgary dispatcher who couldn’t understand the directions he provided to his father’s home in Millarville. After about 15 minutes of trying to explain the directions, Teskey said he was eventually transferred to another dispatcher who was more familiar with rural addressing.
Once he spoke to the second dispatcher, Teskey said it only took about six to eight minutes before the ambulance arrived.
“The first unable operator from Calgary dispatch wasted at least 15 minutes of time,” said Teskey. “The Calgary system was a complete failure.”
A request to Alberta Health Services (AHS) for the 911 call log to determine the timeline of events could not be granted due to privacy legislation.
David was pronounced dead when paramedics arrived and an autopsy later revealed he had been dead for some time, having suffered a massive heart attack.
Although paramedics couldn’t have revived David, MD residents such as David’s wife Joyce, are concerned over what would happen if they were in a similar life or death situation.
“We here in the MD are anxious,” said Joyce. “We hear about the ambulance people’s frustration. It is a definite concern.”
This isn’t the first incident during which an ambulance has taken a significant amount of time to reach a rural address.
In February 2010, MD of Foothills resident Willy Gannon waited anxiously for 45 minutes for an ambulance to reach her home just six minutes west of Okotoks. Her husband, Ray, who has had two heart attacks in the past, was vomiting, had high blood pressure and complained of feeling dizzy.
When Willy provided the dispatcher with directions to her house, she was told her directions didn’t make sense. It was only after a second 911 call the ambulance eventually arrived.
Upon hearing news a similar incident took place recently, Willy said she is incredulous the problem still exists.
“I’m flabbergasted. I can’t believe this is still going on,” she said. “What are you supposed to do? Take the person to the hospital yourself because they can’t find you?”
Her husband, Ray, echoed her frustration.
“It’s not that difficult (to understand rural addressing),” he said. “We live in a modern world, and you should be able to find anywhere within 10 minutes.”
Problems with EMS dispatchers in understanding rural addressing first arose in October 2009 when AHS took steps to centralize more than 30 rural EMS dispatch centres into three centres in Peace River, Edmonton and Calgary.
Prior to the move, the Foothills Regional Emergency Medical Service (FREMS) operated a dispatch call centre in Black Diamond, which has since been replaced with one in Calgary that handles all calls from landlines in southern Alberta.
The main issue that arose during the bumpy transition of services was problems with city dispatchers understanding rural addressing.
To address the issue, the MD of Foothills introduced rural addressing signs, with unique numbers for rural residences on blue signs to help Calgary dispatchers direct ambulances with ease. Foothills residents had to purchase the signs themselves.
However, despite having a rural address sign, the ambulance dispatcher still did not understand the directions provided to the Teskey residence.
“Mark gave the dispatch person the number of the rural address sign and the address,” said Joyce. “We followed protocol.”
While the paramedics and the RCMP were “remarkably wonderful” in their response to the situation, Joyce said the problems with Calgary dispatchers need to be addressed.
“We have only praise for our local people, but (the problems) are all in the Calgary dispatch centre,” said Joyce. “The crux of the matter is the dispatch people in Calgary do not have an understanding of the rural area.”
Continued concerns from residents prompted Foothills MD Coun. Suzanne Oel to request a meeting with Health and Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky during the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties convention on March 23.
“During that meeting, I presented some of the concerns and as a result of that, we are looking forward to working actively on solutions with (Alberta Health and Wellness),” said Oel.
Oel, who also represents the MD on the board for the Foothills Regional Emergency Services Commission (FRESC), brought to the meeting concerns raised to her as both a councillor and board member.
However, Oel said she was unable to discuss any other concerns or incidents brought to her attention by MD residents, as the information is protected under privacy legislation. Oel also said she couldn’t divulge the timeline the health minister provided in getting the issue resolved.
Joyce said she was told last week by MD councillors the issue should be resolved within 30 days.
Zwozdesky said his staff is looking into the councillors’ concerns.
“We had a good thorough chat and we have some staff doing some follow up on the issues they raised,” he said.
Jim Garland, executive director EMS dispatch for AHS in Edmonton, said there have only been two issues since October regarding dispatchers having difficulty in determining location of addresses. However, he said the issues have since been resolved.
“Both of those have been addressed, so I’m not sure where the issues (brought forward by the MD councillors) have come from,” said Garland.
Garland said there were issues with locating rural addresses during the transition to centralized dispatch centres, but said the deployment in March 2010 of mobile data terminals with GPS electronic mapping “seemed to resolve most of the issues.”
Still, MD residents are not convinced their concerns have been addressed.
Joyce said she believes the root of the problem could be insufficient training for city dispatchers. Rather than try to understand Teskey’s directions to the home, Joyce said the dispatcher was quick to walk her son through resuscitating his father.
“Well, Mark said to her, ‘He’s dead,’” recalled Joyce. “Perhaps that was what she was trained to do, but there was no need to resuscitate. It was pretty evident that he was dead.”
Joyce said she believes a return to the previous system in Black Diamond would solve the Calgary dispatch problems.
“Before it became centralized, our dispatch here with FREMS was superb,” she said. “All I ask is that we have a better system, one that would protect in a situation where they would get there on time.
“We need change.”