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Willow Creek MD still frustrated with emergency services dispatch

LAWRENCE GLEASON – GAZETTE CONTRIBUTOR
Provincially co-ordinated ambulance dispatch is still not working according to MD of Willow Creek Fire Chief Travis Coleman.
Coleman was speaking to councillors and administration June 21 who knew this news already and shared their own frustration with it.
The MD of Willow Creek’s frustration with this issue cannot be understated. Both councillors and administration are at a loss as to what to do, and are setting up interviews with media to explain their concerns,
Coleman has an interview planned with the Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC).
“Hopefully the court of public opinion is activated so they will know the province is not providing the service for which we have an expectation,” chief administrative officer Cynthia Vizzutti said, adding it was the first time the municipal district sought media interviews to explain concerns.
“Hopefully our ratepayers will pick up the phone on this,” Vizzutti said.
A centralized dispatch of ambulance calls for southern Alberta began Feb. 21 by Alberta Health Services.
Prior to that the emergency services dispatch system for this area was handled exclusively with the Foothills Regional Emergency Services Commission, which covered 14 municipalities.
With the commission, local fire departments and ambulances would be called out.
Now the province dispatches ambulance services while the commission dispatches fire departments.
The new dispatch service has some problems to work out, but rural municipalities — the MD of Willow Creek is not the only one — have some deep concerns with the new system.
“We are getting big delays in (dispatch) time,” Coleman said, adding, “I just want to assure people when we are supposed to be there, we’re there.”
The delay in local emergency services being dispatched is a catch-22.
The local firefighter crews are being dispatched later, increasing their response time, which could be interpreted by Alberta Health Services not that the new dispatch system is at fault and problematic, with problems that need to be fixed, but that local fire department crews are slower.
Coun. Neil Wilson said, “From my jaded perspective this is showing the health minister our local crews are inept when in fact they are not.”
Coleman told councillors that with provincial emergency dispatch there are more steps taken now than there had been with local dispatch, leading to time delays on emergency calls.
“We used to do two or three sets of vitals for the ambulance coming, having the patient ready for them, talking to them on the way so they know what they are coming to,” Coleman said, adding now fire crews are dispatched at times after the ambulance, not before.
New problems also include firefighters getting late night calls, then told to stand down as not needed.
Vizzutti said it was unacceptable for volunteer fire fighters to get such assist calls, meant for full-time ambulance crews, in the early hours only to be then be stood down.
“We are being dispatched where we don’t need to be or we are being dispatched late,” said Vizzutti, explaining the agreement with the province on emergency services is that municipal fire departments are not called in place of a full-time ambulance service.
“We are getting our firefighters out of bed at three o’clock in the morning for a lift assist,” Vizzutti said, calling it an improper use of the volunteer fire department who are on call 24-hours a day for real local emergencies.
“These people have jobs. They have to get to work in the morning,” Vizzutti said.
A concern raised by both Coleman and MD of Willow Creek Reeve Earl Hemmaway is that municipal district response units cannot be called an “ambulance” by the province as they are not licensed to transport patients even if the patient is aboard and the hospital is close.
Vizzutti said the issue seemed to be “a turf war.”
“How did the province legitimately impose an intermunicipal collaborative framework, and not use a collaborative good will approach to municipalities on this issue?” Vizzutti added.
Hemmaway and Coleman expressed disappointment that a meeting with Health Minister Sara Hoffman seemed to not only have produced no results with their concerns, but Hemmaway said the minister has since publicly stated she is unaware of the issue.
“According to Sarah Hoffman, she says she didn’t know anything about it,” Hemmaway said.
Coleman pointed at the distance between himself and the reeve, and said, “She was sitting that far away when we told her. We told her everything.”
Hemmaway said the centralized dispatch out of Calgary hasn’t been aware of ambulances located closer to patients on some ambulance calls dispatched in this area.
“Someone waited hours for an ambulance in Stavely and we found out later there was an ambulance sitting in Claresholm the whole time,” Hemmaway said.
Coun. Ian Sundquist said the issue was “very frustrating.”
“What can we do? We need to take some radical steps here,” Sundquist said.
Coun. Glen Alm suggested a fleet of ambulances parked at the provincial legislature.
“That would certainly bring the media out,” Vizzutti said.
No decision was made on that suggestion.

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