FRESC officials still want dispatch returned

By: Don Patterson

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Feb 19, 2014 06:00 am

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Foothills politicians are renewing calls for the Province to return responsibility for ambulance dispatch to a local call centre.

Alberta’s health minister recently stated he was considering giving mid-sized municipalities the option to continue to dispatch ambulances.

MD councilor and Foothills Regional Services Commission (FRESC) chairperson Susan Oel has renewed the organization’s long-standing request to take back control for ambulance dispatch services in the foothills area.

“We would certainly be interested in following this through to look at an opportunity for us to open up a dialogue and restore our valuable service that we had as well here,” said Oel.

The Province handed over of dispatch for ambulances from FRESC to the City of Calgary Public Safety Communications (PSC) in 2009 as part of a move to centralize the service in three call centres in Edmonton, Calgary and Peace River.

The transition wasn’t as smooth as hoped.

Not long after dispatch was moved to Calgary FRESC officials raised the alarm over delays in ambulance response times because dispatchers in the city didn’t understand rural addresses and legal land descriptions and because ambulances based in the foothills area were being tied up on calls in the city.

As well, communities such as Lethbridge that have integrated dispatch operations for ambulance and fire services balked at handing over EMS dispatch. A review of EMS services conducted by the Health Quality Council of Alberta recommended completing centralization of dispatch services and the centralization of dispatch is approximately 95 per cent complete.

Alberta health minister Fred Horne said he is considering a proposal that would allow Lethbridge, Red Deer and Fort McMurray to continue operating existing integrated dispatch services for fire and ambulance services not only within their boundaries, but for a number of rural municipal districts and counties.

He said nothing has been decided and would not go into details. However, he said the dispatch centres in those communities could be linked with other ambulance dispatch centres.

“What they have asked is if we would work with them to try to find a way to continue to provide the integrated dispatch for all those services and at the same time meet the objectives the Province has for province-wide consolidation,” he said.

He said no other areas would be considered to get dispatch back.

“Is this option open to other parts of the Province, the answer is no,” he said. “We’re not going to undo any of the consolidation that we’ve completed. This is around the special circumstances in these three municipalities.”

Under a province-wide dispatch model, he said it allows dispatchers to see where all ambulances in the province are to ensure the ambulance closest to an emergency responds to the call.

Oel said FRESC is still interested in taking back responsibility for dispatching ambulances in the foothills. The Foothills Regional Emergency Services Commission owns and operates foothills 911 services. It operates a call centre at the Oilfields Hospital, dispatching calls for fire departments and forwarding calls for police and ambulances to dispatch centres elsewhere.

She said FRESC handled ambulance dispatch services for 125,000 people, mostly in rural Alberta, before dispatch was moved.

“On a positive way we want to go back to him and say we really have something valuable here and we’ve been working really hard to participate with whatever investigations going on and now we want to see if we can just plain and simply have it back,” she said.

Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier said it’s a positive sign the minister is reconsidering centralization of dispatch for mid-sized municipalities.

However, he said the province should also consider returning control of ambulance dispatch to other services, such as FRESC, that want it back.

“I think after seven years it’s obvious that it’s not been working,” he said.

He said the use of ambulances to transfer patients from one facility to another is still a problem.

He said there have been many instances where ambulances based in smaller communities have been used to transport patients to hospitals and other facilities in the city. He said this ties up resources and leaves communities without ambulance coverage.

“In the meantime that leaves the whole corridor, towns and villages along Highway 2 like Claresholm that have a lot of potential health services needs totally bare,” he said.

Stier said it’s one of the biggest problems regarding ambulance service in small towns, and he’s still waiting to see details on the minister’s plan.

Horne said they are still working on a new plan for interfacility transfers, which could involve a separate stream to deal with these types of trips.

He said interfacility transfers amount to 30 per cent of all ambulance trips and potential changes will free up space in the EMS system.


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