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Staff shortage causes Barrhead ambulance to sit for a shift for four days

HSAA said they are going to social media to alert the public about the shortage of paramedics in the province
Associated Ambulance Barrhead building copy
According to the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the Barrhead ambulance station wasn't able to staff one of its two ambulances for a shift for four days last week.

BARRHEAD- For the second time in two weeks, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) announced that a staffing shortage impacted Barrhead area ambulance service.

For four days, from Oct 17 – 19 and Oct. 21, the HSAA, through its Facebook page, stated that due to a lack of staffing, a Barrhead ambulance had been removed from the schedule, effectively shutting it down.

The HSAA is a union that represents 27,000 Alberta health care workers, including paramedics.

On Oct. 5, the HSAA issued a "Red Alert" for Barrhead and Westlock, as no ambulances were available to serve the community for a brief period.

See Red Alert story here

HSAA president Michael Parker said, unfortunately, they are issuing these types of alerts routinely for all areas of the province.

"The reason why we are taking this very aggressive step (having members post alerts to the HSAA Facebook page) is to start to show the public what is happening because nothing else is working," he said.

The root of the problem, Parker said, is that AHS does not have enough paramedics to cover the rising demand, especially from the urban regions.

More often than not, in order to cover the lack of ambulance availability in urban areas, ambulance crews from rural areas are being tapped to cover the shortfall.

"When Edmonton gets busy, Morinville moves in to cover, Westlock moves down ... and all of a sudden there is no one left, or you have minimal coverage in rural regions," Parker said, adding that is why on the HSAA Facebook page, "Red Alerts" are becoming more common. "It should only be a once in a while occurrence that happens for mass injury incident."

He used the example of the Oct. 4 plane crash at the Westlock airport where multiple EMS crews from Westlock, Morinville, Barrhead and STARS Air Ambulance responded to the event where four people were injured.

"That is acceptable. We understand there will be times that emergencies will occur that you can't predict or staff for," he said. "These code reds are not happening because of mass casualties, but a general lack of resources because of increases in population, a massive opioid crisis across the province and now, COVID ... that is why you routinely see it take 45 minutes to more than an hour for an ambulance to respond to a call."

As for why there wasn't enough staff to crew an ambulance for a shift on three consecutive days, Parker didn't know the answer, saying the reasons could vary from sickness, stress or mental health issues, having to isolate, or days off.

However, he said the latter isn't as likely as vacation days and time off are either being denied or cancelled.

"It could be just because they are exhausted. These crews have been running non-stop for two years, and we just don't have enough paramedics ready to pick up a shift in Barrhead or even Edmonton," Parker said.

Generally, Parker explained, ambulance crews are scheduled for 12-hour shifts, with 12 hours between shifts for four days, with four days off, or using a core-flex system where paramedics are on-call for 96 hours over four days.

Parker added in smaller communities, sometimes they staff their units using both systems, with one unit on a 12-hour shift, while the other unit is on call. In Barrhead, the two ambulance units are scheduled using the core-flex system.

"The ambulance working the 12-hour shift, might time out on a trip to Edmonton and on the way back home, have to take another call, so they can't get a fresh crew on board," he said.

Parker also added that it is not a new problem.

"For the last 10 years, we haven't added resources, those paramedics on the ground, to deal with increasing population and call volume. COVID just highlighted the problem because if a paramedic crew gets sick or injured, has to isolate, or can't report for work for any reason there is no one to replace them," he said.

Parker noted the previous government had committed an additional $22 million to address the issue, but the current United Conservative Party government "clawed that back".

Associated Ambulance executive director of operations Paul Kennedy did not know if there had been a staffing issue in Barrhead on those specific days, noting the union's information isn't always accurate but it wouldn't surprise him if the Barrhead ambulance station dropped multiple shifts.

AHS contracts Associated Ambulance to provide ambulance service in several rural Alberta communities, including Barrhead, Westlock and Athabasca.

"There are probably 50 ambulances in the province not on the road today alone because of staffing issues," he said. "It is not a rural, direct delivery (AHS controlled ambulances), or a contract issue.  It is a province-wide problem, and the system needs a massive overhaul to make things better."

Kennedy said Associated Ambulance, as a company, has been “pushing” AHS and the province for changes.

"What we are dealing with now is 19 months of people (paramedics) being sick and tired of being abused by patients and everyone under the sun under very stressful conditions," he said.

However, having said that, Kennedy noted that they are doing their best to "ensure that there is coverage for emergencies in all the communities we serve as well as help other communities when needed."

"We are not trying to hide anything. These are provincial system issues that need to be fixed. And we want to be part of the solution," he said, adding they are willing to work with AHS as part of a working group to help solve the problem.

In an e-mail, AHS reiterated many of the statements they made after the Oct. 5 Red Alert including that the province has seen an advanced call volume over the last several months due to several factors, including the pandemic and emergency calls related to people returning to pre-pandemic activities.

"All call types have increased and staff illness and fatigue are also contributing to challenges in the EMS system."

The e-mail also states that the province is working on filling 100 additional EMS positions, is bringing on additional staff to help deal with the increased call volume and are offering overtime to willing staff.

They also noted that despite crew shortages, "anyone who needs EMS care in Barrhead will receive it", adding due to the province's borderless system additional support can be called upon from outside a community's normal coverage area.

Barry Kerton,


Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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