Local EMS dispatch returning to Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, ending fight with province

The move ends a fight between the RMWB and the Alberta government after local EMS dispatchers were replaced with a centralized model.

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The Alberta government is returning EMS dispatch to the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region by the end of 2024. This ends a dispute that began when the province announced in 2020 that EMS dispatch would be run from centralized hubs in Edmonton, Calgary and Peace River.

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A Tuesday statement from the province said the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) will staff and run the dispatch centre. The centre can also ease pressure on the three dispatch hubs for surge support. Dispatchers will use technology from Alberta Health Services (AHS) to deploy ambulances. The program will cost an estimated $2 million to launch.

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“At the end of the day, facts prevailed,” said Mayor Sandy Bowman in an interview. “I’ve been meeting with every health minister and advocating for this. We can do this. We are an isolated, northern community that is bigger than the province of Nova Scotia. Our needs are unique.

Bowman thanked Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, Premier Danielle Smith, Fort McMurray’s UCP MLAs and the advocacy of former mayor Don Scott, current and former councillors and Indigenous communities. Bowman also praised Fire Chief Jody Butz and local emergency workers for their fight.

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“This new dispatch centre paves the way for the delivery of a locally coordinated emergency response tailored to the unique needs of the communities we proudly serve while also supporting other communities across Alberta,” said Butz in a statement.

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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 jpg, FM

Centralized dispatch model opposed locally since 2020

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

Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo moved to the centralized dispatch system at the start of 2021 after it was announced in the summer of 2020. Emergency leaders in the region argued the new system caused delayed responses and sent paramedics to wrong addresses, particularly in rural areas.

The mayors of the RMWB, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Calgary and local Indigenous leaders opposed the central model. The province did not comment on whether local dispatch will return to other communities that have opposed the central model.

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The RMWB and the province were fighting 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.

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.

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Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott speaks to the media following a meeting with Minister of Health Tyler Shandro about Alberta Health Services’ plans to consolidate EMS Dispatch, in Edmonton Thursday Sept. 24, 2020. The meeting was also attended by the mayors of Calgary, Lethbridge, and Red Deer. Photo by David Bloom jpg, SP

The announcement was part of a series of announcements on addressing EMS concerns across Alberta. This includes a new advisory committee and a performance framework. The province defended the centralized system in their statement.

They acknowledged a January report for the Alberta government that 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.

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