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Cochrane calls for change as ambulance service is 'in crisis'

'They're literally letting people die by not changing the way they do business,' Don Sharpe says regarding ambulance services.

A 10-point plan created by EMS officials to address issues with ambulance response times and paramedic shortages in the province is now reportedly in the hands of Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping.

Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie met with EMS officials last week after the plan was delivered as resounding calls for improved emergency medical response, reduced ambulance wait times at hospitals and better management of the system overall become louder throughout the province. 

"People are having emergencies but the whole service is an emergency right now," said Don Sharpe, a registered paramedic working for Alberta Health Services.

"Now we're in a crisis where it's completely out of control and patients are waiting for ambulances for over an hour."

Sharpe, who has been helping to organize EMS crisis citizen action groups across the province, including Cochrane's, said there are four issues that must be solved to immediately address what has become a broken EMS response system. 

The first is to rid the need for paramedics to wait in hospital hallways when dropping off patients, instead allowing them to get back on the road where they can respond to other emergencies.

"Out there in the community is where paramedics belong," he said. "The idea that they can be held hostage in the hallway is reprehensible and it has to end.

"The second thing is we have to stop ambulances from doing things they shouldn't be, like transporting non-emergent patients."

The Cochrane Urgent Care Centre for example, should not have to call an ambulance to transport a patient to Calgary for blood work. Instead, Sharpe suggested, a triage should be done and a private medical service like Aaron Paramedical could potentially be used to transport the patient if needed, freeing up an ambulance for emergencies.

"Otherwise, when that ambulance is leaving town and they look in the rear-view mirror and they hear there's a cardiac arrest call going on — that's a moral injury for those paramedics that wears them out," he said.

Ambulance crews from Cochrane and other municipalities also should not be flexing their services into other areas, Sharpe added, which would drastically improve response time and reduce the possibility of a code red, where no ambulances are available in the area to respond to emergencies.

Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA), the union that represents 28,000 health-care professionals in Alberta, reported 148 red alerts in 35 communities from Jan. 10-16 alone, eight occurrences of which were in Cochrane. 

"[EMS] also shouldn't be clearing the hospital and then being asked to do more calls in Calgary or other communities," said Sharpe. "Stop doing those four things and you've literally turned your ambulance service around and put the equivalent of a dozen more trucks on the street right away."

What was already an emotionally and physically distressing job has become even more so and is taking its toll not only on paramedics, but also the ambulances they must operate for longer hours and distances.

Fourteen out of jurisdiction emergency calls from Jan. 10-16 required ambulances to travel over an hour to a patient's location. The longest response was recorded at three hours and 24 minutes from Cold Lake to Edmonton. 

"You're going to wreck your paramedics, you're going to ruin all your trucks and you're not going to have any of us left," Sharpe said. "It's a dark, dark time right now."

A local woman, Ali Morrison, shares many of the same concerns as Sharpe and other members of the public and has taken it upon herself to collect to as many names as she can in the community to present to Guthrie, along with information she's gathered working with local EMS. 

Morrison, a classical music teacher from Ireland, said she wanted to get involved in advocating for EMS in Cochrane having come from a country where the health-care system is at the point of collapse.

"People were trying to go to see a doctor, ambulances were coming an hour later and people were pissed," said Morrison of her experience back home. "If you've got a kid who's choking or a baby that's not breathing, or a heart attack — this is too long."

Morrison got in front of Guthrie last week with about 350 names of which she requested he present, along with their stories, to the next Legislative Assembly. 

She also suggested that the MLA ride shotgun with a local EMS crew to shadow a shift.

"I'm going to continue pressing for that," she urged. "I think that there's nothing like being out there to realize the experience of people in the field."

Sharpe, who agrees that MLAs should have a firm grasp on the EMS crisis and was among those to put his name on Morrison's list, thinks a slightly different approach might be necessary at this point.

"Peter Guthrie doesn't need to do a ride-along anymore, that time has passed, ride-alongs were fun" he said. "Peter, and every MLA in this province, needs to go to a hospital and see their EMS crews in the hallway not serving constituents when a call comes in that someone is short of breath."

Then, he suggested, MLAs should go to one of their local fire stations to speak with firefighters and help them clean their trucks at the end of the day, as they're often the first to have to respond to such emergencies in the absence of EMS.

"It's really hard to screw this up, but this organization has managed to do that," said Sharpe. "They're literally letting people die by not changing the way they do business."

Guthrie has yet to respond to request for comment. 

The paramedic commended the work being done by those who have stepped up to sit on the citizen action groups that have cropped up in Cochrane and other communities.

"They're brave and they're smart, and they want to help," he said. "I have lots of hope that this is going to be resolved because of their actions."

The Cochrane group holds monthly meetings which are regularly attended by Mayor Jeff Genung and Coun. Marni Fedeyko.

Their next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 27 at the Legion.

Genung said he has also reached out to EMS officials to welcome them to an upcoming town council meeting sometime in February.

"One of the things that I'm trying to utilize is the knowledge I've gained through the citizen action group, and also bounce some questions off them so we're a little bit more informed," he said.

"The hope is that we can ask meaningful questions that help maybe put some people's minds at ease, perhaps shed some more light on what the problem actually is, how it's being addressed by the province and what our current state really is."