While the Grande Prairie Fire Department (GPFD) is seeing an increase in medical calls, its 911 service is grappling with delays in secondary call processing to other first responders organizations.
“We are now seeing a trend where the fire department is being relied on more often for EMS delivery, and this reliance is starting to impact areas of our service,” said GPFD Fire Chief Preben Bossen.
He said GPFD began providing a medical response in 1988; the need has changed over the years as the department has adjusted “to ensure the appropriate level of services delivered based on the needs of EMS and (GPFD) capacity.”
Delays in ambulances arriving at scenes have increased the time on tasks for GPFD members, according to a report given to city council at the April 25 Public and Protective Services Committee meeting.
The report says the average EMS ambulance wait time in a first responder situation has increased 80 per cent from 6 ½ minutes to 11 ½ minutes. The report notes GPFD has logged delays that exceed 60 minutes.
The report says challenges with the delivery of EMS services are being reported nationwide and that patient offload delays at hospitals and recruitment and retention are stated as issues.
“The issues are complex and to a large extent a result of systemic issues within the broader health care system,” reads the report.
Rob Barone, AHS North Zone operations associate executive director, spoke to city council in February about the challenges EMS is facing here.
He named multiple factors leading including “an increase in 911 event volumes (and) inter-facility transfer volumes, emergency department offload delays, recruitment and retention challenges (and) global supply chain issues.”
The impacts on GPFD include not having EMS on standby at high-risk incidents.
“We seem to struggle to get that coverage as well because they are either short-staffed or out of units,” said Mark VanWerkhoven, deputy fire chief.
He also noted that resources are stretched when units are on medical calls, and then there is a fire call.
“We had a fire recently where we had two single-family dwellings involved, and when that call came in, we had one unit out on a medical call and another unit returning, so it stretches our resources,” said VanWerkhoven.
“What we’re seeing is it’s no longer a situation where we’re assisting them (EMS); we’re to some extent starting to provide the service, and we’re not necessarily equipped to provide that service, nor do we have the capability of transporting patients to the hospital.”
The report details delays related to secondary 911 call processing by the RCMP and AHS EMS.
Primary 911 and secondary fire 911 are provided by GPFD through a branch called GP911, while secondary police and EMS 911 are provided by the RCMP and AHS.
The report says GP911 answers more than 99 per cent of its calls in under 15 seconds but if a call requires EMS or RCMP, the call is then transferred to that agency.
GP911 has logged 911 secondary transfer times in excess of 15 minutes, says the report, and 50 per cent of transferred calls take longer than 54 seconds for EMS and 60 seconds for RCMP to transfer and clear.
“GP911 will continue to provide the caller with pre-arrival instructions, but an RCMP or EMS resource is not dispatched until the call is answered and processed by the respective agencies’ secondary 911 dispatch centre,” says the report.
The delays are causing increased workloads on the staff at GP911.
According to the report, staffing and retention issues are believed to be the issue at the secondary 911 centres.
City council to advocate
“Anytime we see that people may be waiting in a moment of desperate distress or need, it’s concerning,” said Mayor Jackie Clayton.
City council made a motion to advocate for GPFD provincially for immediate and sustainable funding for fire medical response services.
“We’re using municipal resources to respond to a provincial responsibility; we definitely should get money for that,” said coun. Dylan Bressey.
Council also directed city administration to research possible amendments to the Alberta 911 Program Standards that make provincial funding contingent on mandatory answer times for both GP911 and secondary (RCMP, EMS) centres.
VanWerkhoven said that under current provincial standards, all 911 calls should be answered in under 15 seconds.
He stressed that the issue is not only in Grande Prairie but much more widespread.
“It is an international trend that a number of different countries and jurisdictions are seeing around the availability of EMS resources and the strain on those EMS resources.”
By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on May 04, 2023