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More EMS services in Calgary remain empty during Stampede

More EMS services in Calgary remain empty during Stampede
More EMS services in Calgary remain empty during Stampede

Calgary first responders are facing a massive burnout due to increased call volumes during the 2024 Stampede. A shortage of available workers has left multiple shifts unfilled, further increasing the pressure on the health care system.

According to internal documents obtained by CTV News through the Alberta Health Services (AHS) employee portal, there were 15 paramedic shifts open in the Calgary area on Wednesday. However, those numbers are expected to increase significantly as the week progresses.

On Thursday and Friday there are 23 vacant shifts for both days, but on Saturday there are currently 52 unfilled shifts. That means with two paramedics per ambulance, the shortage could result in 26 fewer EMS units.

The large gap in staffing levels is causing some aid workers to speak out against their employers.

A paramedic who spoke to CTV News anonymously because he feared losing his job said there were already dozens of vacancies as of last week.

“It only got worse as the week progressed towards Stampede, meaning we are now seeing trucks from rural communities such as Chestermere, Cochrane, Airdrie, High River, Priddis and even Banff leaving those areas to take calls in the city,” they said.

“It’s such a gut-wrenching feeling to know that our city is in a deep red alert, there could be 20 calls being handled at once, but no ambulance coming. It’s shameful and this profession has been suffering for years.”

An internal memo that Calgary Zone EMS Operations sent to its paramedics on June 19 aimed to make them aware that “EMS was seeing a significant increase in calls” during the Stampede, but that it was ensuring that resources and processes were in place.

“Additional resources include ambulances, PRUs, VESST coverage, and supervisors. Vacancies for those resources are now posted on Telestaff,” the memo said.

“Calgary Zone EMS has also proactively reached out to our emergency department partners to discuss off-load optimization and our return-to-duty mandate. Nurses and EMS supervisors will be working closely to free up ambulances as quickly as possible during this time.”

However, the source within the ambulance service says little effort has been made to ensure the services have sufficient staff.

“They have a lot of new trucks now, so the problem is not so much with the physical ambulance, but with the fact that the staff are not being looked after properly,” they said.

“They’re not hiring fast enough. The people they bring into the field come here and say, ‘Well, this isn’t what I expected.'”

CTV News has reached out to AHS for comment and is awaiting a response.

In a statement, Alberta Health said the government is focused on building emergency medical care capacity through several initiatives, “including inter-facility transfer services, adding more ambulances and services, budgetary investments, conducting studies and following up on recommendations to improve response times, and working with other government ministries to recruit and retain more EMS personnel.”

“At events like the Calgary Stampede, Alberta Health Services ensures that resources are available in all communities and that large events have the necessary staff to keep attendees and employees safe.”

‘This is nothing new’: retired paramedic

Don Sharpe worked as an advanced care paramedic for more than 40 years before retiring in 2022. He says he still gets calls from colleagues several times a week about the increased pressure on ambulance crews in Alberta.

“Unfortunately, this is nothing new. The department has done absolutely nothing to alleviate the problem of ambulances being out of service, and I wonder if they ever can,” he said.

“This is such a busy time, paramedics want to go on holiday just like everyone else, but we still need basic cover. We need the people who have committed to turn up, but the volume of work is just getting so huge.”

The situation has worsened, especially during the Calgary Stampede.

According to internal AHS documents obtained by CTV News, there were an average of 63 vacant shifts per day for the 2023 Calgary Stampede.

This means that an average of 32 ambulances were stopped and a total of 3,852 overtime hours were worked during the 10-day event.

Sharpe has also unfortunately heard of a number of cases where ambulances in rural areas were unavailable to patients in urgent need of life-saving assistance.

“Once big cities like Calgary run out of ambulances, they start looting smaller communities and leaving no one to take care of those citizens and that’s wrong,” he said.

“So for example, someone in Priddis who should have gotten an ambulance within two or three minutes had to wait 20 minutes and because of that long response time, they didn’t make it. This unfortunately happens a lot.”

The devastation and lack of coverage prompted Sharpe to create a website called wheresmyambulance.com, which aims to provide citizens with statistics and information about their local ambulance services.

Calgary hospitals on diversion

In addition to the vacancies for ambulance staff, two of Calgary’s largest hospitals were unable to perform surgeries Tuesday night due to staffing issues, forcing patients to be transferred to other facilities.

According to Dr. Paul Parks, president of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA), both South Health Campus and Rockyview General Hospital were diverted and unable to perform emergency surgeries.

“For example, if a patient is seen with appendicitis and there is concern that the patient is going to rupture and need to be rushed to the operating room, one of those hospitals may have a general surgeon present, but he cannot operate on the patient,” Parks said.

“They then have to actually call an ambulance and wait for the ambulance to get the victim off the street, so that ambulance can’t see other patients in the community. That patient then has to be transferred to another facility.”

Parks notes that it is unprecedented for a major city to have two major hospitals both diverting patients, a sign of how “out of control” Alberta’s health care system is becoming.

He adds that in December 2023, the AMA provided Alberta Health with a stabilization plan for government hospitals to let the province know that more funding was needed to support teams in these types of situations.

“It’s very demoralizing to know that you can’t take care of these patients in the facilities. This is a bread-and-butter type of general surgery. Any major hospital in Alberta with general surgeons can take care of these cases, but not having the support staff to do it safely is very demoralizing,” he said.

“Our job is to diagnose and save lives and limbs, but we actually spend hours on the phone referring patients to other hospitals.”

Alberta Health Responds

Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said the province is investing in increasing capacity so patients who need it can get the surgery they need as quickly as possible.

The following statement was provided to CTV News by the secretary of state’s office on Wednesday:

“The Government of Alberta is investing to increase capacity so Albertans can get the surgeries they need faster. This includes $618 million to upgrade and improve operating rooms across the province and ensure we remain on track to perform a record number of surgeries this year,” the statement said.

“We need to use every resource we have to perform as many surgeries as possible. Thousands of Albertans are now receiving their publicly funded surgeries in chartered operating rooms. This frees up hospital operating rooms to perform more complex surgeries.”

The statement goes on to say that the province is taking additional steps to refocus Alberta’s health care system to “ensure Albertans have access to more effective care and improve health outcomes.”