Patchy service with EMS

It’s a big relief knowing there are ambulances in the community — but what if those ambulances don’t show up or are already busy?

It’s a big relief knowing there are ambulances in the community — but what if those ambulances don’t show up or are already busy?

These issues have caused some concern throughout rural Alberta. Ponoka had two instances last week when emergencies occurred and ambulances had to be called from Hobbema and Lacombe. Just weeks prior to that there were two instances where Guardian Ambulance had units in Ponoka but were not dispatched.

Luckily first responders from the fire department and police were on when ambulances are on hand but are not called there is some cause for worry, says Ted Dillon, the Town of Ponoka’s director of protective services. He spoke to representatives with Alberta Health Services (AHS) to identify where the issues are.

“There’s been a couple of instances of concern that are going to be addressed at AHS,” he said.

Ambulance dispatch is being consolidated into only three centres in Alberta: Peace River, Edmonton and Calgary. This has forced the Town of Ponoka to change its fire dispatch to Red Deer from Rocky Mountain House, while Guardian Ambulance dispatch is dealt with in Calgary.

Dillon feels there will be some growing pains while the new system gets running and the issues may have been a breakdown in communication, which is why he is speaking with AHS. He wants to find the gaps to ensure they do not happen again.

EMS is now on a borderless system as well with the goal being the closest ambulance will be able to handle an emergency call, says Lyle McKellar, executive director for EMS.

He feels some of the communication gaps have occurred because the centralized dispatch system is not yet fully in place. The program began Aug. 15 and there are three other dispatch centres besides the main ones: Red Deer, Wainwright 911 and Mask achees Dispatch.

Until there are only the three dispatch centres it will be a challenge for AHS to track all their EMS units. “We can also capture their real-time dispatch response times.”

“The biggest strength (of borderless EMS) is to determine the closest available ambulance to respond,’ he said.

The biggest challenge is having several dispatch centres but their consolidation to three will give EMS planners a full picture of where units are heading and which is closer to any specific scene.

Where units get tied up is in hospital transfers. If Guardian Ambulance is transporting a patient to a hospital this leaves one ambulance — maybe two during peak times — in Ponoka.

This means a person in decent health needing to go to another hospital will receive the same level of EMS transport as a person needing immediate surgery.

“There is a lot of demand for patient transfers,” said McKellar.

“One of the benefits around consolidated dispatch is to try to find efficiencies about having those ambulances where we can,” he added.

McKellar’s job is to determine how to create a cheaper form of transport for those patients who have less then urgent care. “We have been attempting to move this forward in a timely manner.”

The issues he sees with another form of EMS transportation is in finding the resources to accomplish this and “it has to be clinically safe.”

Edmonton and Calgary zones have already implemented an alternate form of transport, which provides a lower level of service but is still safe.

McKellar feels Ponoka is fortunate in that it has both the hospital and the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury. The number of ambulances used has not changed.

Two ambulances provide 24 hour coverage and a third covers peak times four days out of the week.