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HSAA alleges ambulance coverage in Cochrane at critical tipping point

“You are right in the middle of it all,” Parker said. “When your unit is deployed off to Calgary it's the next community and that’s where your ambulance is coming from, or maybe two communities away.”
Ambulance
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COCHRANE— A report from the Union of Healthcare Professionals indicates Cochrane experienced a critical under servicing of ambulances at the start of 2021.

Based on information from union members

Health Sciences Association of Alberta president Mike Parker alleged from mid-January to mid-February of this year Cochrane was left without ambulance service at least 10 times.

Parker said the lack of ambulance coverage in the Cochrane area and other communities surrounding Calgary is affecting the safety and well-being of residents.

“The powerless feeling of the members that do this job every single day, the powerlessness it feels to be the representative of the union that represents them, we’re not getting traction,” Parker said. “We are not safe right now— Our health care system has been pushed to its limit.”

These incidents occurred, he said, because Calgary is over-taxed and the available ambulances in the city are unable to keep up with demands, leading to a shortage of resources in surrounding communities.

Parker called the situation unacceptable and noted Healthcare Professionals' union members have been asking for additional resources for more than a decade.

“The reality is, yes, you should be concerned,” Parker said. “This is happening every single day in the region around Calgary, where a unit is pulled out of the community they have been deployed to protect and they are sent off kilometres and kilometres away.”

Some members have reported witnessing more than 40-minute response times in Cochrane.

“You are right in the middle of it all,” Parker said. “When your unit is deployed off to Calgary it's the next community and that’s where your ambulance is coming from, or maybe two communities away.”

Parker and Healthcare Professional union members believe the solution to the lagging response times is to resource the core of Calgary properly so the region is not forced to draw in resources from communities like Cochrane.

The Union of Healthcare Professionals is hoping to see the situation change, Parker said, because it is frustrating for members who are trying to hold the system together when their pleas for additional resources fall on deaf ears.

“We need the strength of the voice of the people to understand that this is not safe, 40 minutes waiting for a 911 call is not safe,” Parker said.

Cochrane-Airdrie MLA Peter Guthrie said EMS service in Cochrane has been an issue for many years, but strides are being made to reduce the wait times for care.

Guthrie said in his opinion one of the major issues surrounding EMS is the timing of handing off a patient to the hospital for care.

“There isn’t a really good way for EMS services to do that handover so what ends up happening is you have ambulances and the staff waiting with that patient and they can wait with that patient up to eight hours before they can triage that patient to the hospital,” Guthrie said.

The goal has been to get those ambulances back into service quicker. As part of this, the government has been evaluating ways to improve triage and reduce the hand-over times.

“We want to be able to make sure that the patient is able to get the attention that they need sooner. That’s the ultimate goal,” Guthrie said. “Improvements are being made— I believe the services are there."

Guthrie has spoken with Cochrane residents who had major health scares during COVID-19, both indicted they received help from emergency services in under 10 minutes.

He said one of the critical aspects of lowering wait times in the community has been the hard work of Cochrane Fire Services and the emergency services they provide in the community. Guthrie praised the work of firefighters in helping to keep the community safe.

“It happens many times where they are the first people on the scenes and they are trained fully for emergency service,” Guthrie said.

Cochrane Fire Services chief Shawn Polley said firefighters play an important role in responding to emergency events within the Town of Cochrane municipal boundaries.

“It’s part of the fleet of services we provide and we have our own emergency medical responders who are paramedics and EMTs who are certainly capable of doing that work,” Polley said.

On average about 40 to 55 per cent of the 1,200 to 1,400 calls Fire Services receive each year is in support of ambulance work. 

“The mandate that we’ve been given, with support in council funding, is to ensure that we do have a medical first response program,” Polley said. “Council has been very supportive to increase the level of care we have from basic levels to intermediate levels of service.” 

Fire Services is fully supported through its medical first responder program that supplements Alberta Health Services.

“We do provide a first response with fire apparatus to specific calls where an AHS or EMS unit is not available or there is a time delay on some of the lower acuity calls, we are there in partnership to aid,” Polley said. “We’re there in very extreme circumstances as well for very seriously injured or sick people.”

Fire Services has attended 224 events since Jan. 1, 2021 and of those 114 were EMS assistance or EMS first response. Cochrane Fire Services medical response incident statistics are tracked separately from Alberta Health Services and the Union of Healthcare Professionals.

Health care pressures have been a topic of conversation since 2010 and are a complex issue that involves first response, Polley said, and the systemic challenges Alberta Health Services has faced with growing and aging populations in the province.

“For us, it’s not just the response, it’s about how to get the quickest resource to the patient in the most reasonable time,” Polley said. “Alberta Health Services relies on the Cochrane Fire Service team to provide that when they have a lengthy response time or that serious or significant event.”

A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services denied Cochrane experienced a time period where patients were without ambulance services.

Alberta Health Services Emergency Medical Services Activity Summary indicates EMS responded to just under 200 events in January and March of 2021, and 150 incidents in February. Of these events around 200 were emergencies.

The response times released by Alberta Health Services range between just under 10 minutes to around 20 minutes.

"EMS monitors ambulance availability in real-time and ensures resources are always available to respond to emergencies," said Alberta Health Services. "Response times remain stable in Cochrane. There is no record of any life-threatening call in January or February of this year that took 40 minutes to respond to."


Chelsea Kemp

About the Author: Chelsea Kemp

Chelsea Kemp joined the Cochrane Eagle in 2020 as editor, bringing with her experience as a reporter and photojournalist. She writes about politics, health care, arts and entertainment and Indigenous stories.
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