Local EMS dispatch back in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo after lengthy fight

Local emergency workers complained they were sent to the wrong places and faced delays after switching to the centralized model in 2021.

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Local EMS services returned to Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo with the opening of a local dispatch centre in the region on Tuesday morning. The opening ends more than three-and-a-half years of fighting between the municipality and the Alberta government, and fulfills a promise made in late November to return local EMS dispatch to the region.

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The dispute began when the province announced in 2020 that EMS dispatch would be run from centralized hubs in Edmonton, Calgary and Peace River. The centralized model started in early 2021. Local emergency workers complained the centralized system sent them to wrong locations, caused delays and was staffed by people unfamiliar with the region.

“Today is a great day and another step in the right direction for community resilience for the people
that live and work here,” said Mayor Sandy Bowman in a Tuesday joint statement from Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB).

“Local dispatchers will always make sense for our region and they are critical to better response times,” said former mayor Don Scott, who initiated the fight with the province for a return to local EMS dispatch, in an interview. “I am relieved to see the right result achieved.”

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The RMWB will staff and run the dispatch centre in a five-year agreement reached in April. Local dispatchers will ease pressure on the other three dispatch hubs during a crisis and offer surge support. The program will cost an estimated $2 million to launch.

“We are thankful to have our dedicated and capable dispatchers again providing this critical
service,” said Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz. “In a region as large and unique as ours, local knowledge is key for quick and effective dispatch of emergency resources.”

UCP MLA Tany Yao called the news “a logical decision” in a Tuesday statement, while Energy Minister Brian Jean said the local dispatch system will bring “the best care” to the region.

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An ambulance parked outside the Willow Square Continuing Care Centre in Fort McMurray on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. Robert Murray/Special to Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network SunMedia

Centralized dispatch opposed locally since 2020

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The centralized dispatch model was introduced in 2009 by the former PC government, and expanded under the NDP and UCP.

When it came for Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, the model was unpopular with firefighters and their union, Indigenous leaders, and the council of the day. The mayors of Red Deer, Lethbridge and Calgary also opposed the central model.

The province did not comment on whether local dispatch will return to other communities that have opposed the central model.

The RMWB and the province fought the issue in court after council unanimously voted to stop sending 911 EMS calls to the centralized dispatch system in Feb. 2021. Local dispatchers took over until the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench issued a temporary injunction against the RMWB a few days later.

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Former premier Jason Kenney and former health ministers Tyler Shandro and Jason Copping insisted the centralized system was cheaper and more reliable than local models. Butz argued any savings were marginal.

A January report for the Alberta government concluded delays in response times were not caused by the centralized system. But, the report found problems in verifying addresses and locations of emergency calls in rural and remote communities. The report also urged the province to work closely with municipalities on local solutions.

More to come…

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