Rural areas feel impact of busy emergency service

By Miriam Ostermann, Associate Editor

Since Alberta Health Services (AHS) claimed control over the Wheatland and District Emergency Medical Services Association (WADEMSA) dispatch service, ambulances have been dispensed outside the Strathmore and Wheatland County area, resulting in larger call volumes and raising concerns in rural areas of being left exposed.
As of Oct. 31, WADEMSA attended over 3,200 calls – 300 more than the previous year. While unforeseeable forces of nature – such as the October grass fires – contributed to the call volume, AHS’s closest-car model is sending ambulances outside the local area, leaving some residents worried about exposing rural communities to be vulnerable.
“It seems to be, I hate to say it, a growing industry,” said Glenn Koester, chair of WADEMSA for over 10 years.
“The closest ambulance will go and do a call coming back from, say, a hospital. Sometimes they go into Calgary, sometimes even on the other side of Calgary. So out in rural it’s not the greatest situation, because we’re left without our own ambulances; but in the city, they seem to have an extra ambulance.”
AHS accepted a contract proposal with Wheatland County in 2013, after two years of negotiations that allowed the municipality to continue its ownership of the service.
WADEMSA operates and mans three ambulances, with another three for mechanical back-up, when demand is high, or for community events and rodeos. Currently they are being dispatched out of the Alberta Health Services Southern Communications Centre.
“We were a happier bunch when we were doing our own dispatch, but the province won’t let us do that anymore,” said Koester. “When I first got on, it was strictly municipal funded and the province came in with this great idea that they wanted to take it over. We fought it. Well we lost, but in the end we got to keep ownership of it. There’s very few municipal ambulances in the province anymore. We decided we wanted to keep it, so we had a little bit more control over it, and I’m glad we did.”
Town of Strathmore Councillor Denise Peterson, who represents the town on the WADEMSA board, was concerned about the quality of service locally. However, she was satisfied after speaking with WADEMSA staff about their competence.
“When I asked the director the question about whether or not it was going to put stress on staff or stress on vehicles, the accessibility, his answer to me was that a 300-call increase in the current year with their current staffing model was not going to impact service from a staffing perspective,” said Peterson.
“He said it’s something that they can handle with their current staffing. The issue that Glenn mentioned about not having an ambulance on site, that’s something that’s a little harder to guarantee. From the standpoint of a council representative, my concern was if they’re doing a lot of calls outside the normal area, are we still going to get the same level of service? I’m satisfied that our directors will make sure that that happens. They were very convincing.”
According to Rob Witty, director of operations with WADEMSA, the ambulances have been dispatched to Calgary and surrounding areas. However, he said 300 calls over a 10-months period is equivalent to one extra call a day and has minimal affect on his staff. Furthermore, he acknowledged that if all three ambulances are occupied, other ambulances would be repositioned to Wheatland County from areas such as Calgary or Chestermere, as had been done in the past.
“We’re being dispatched to a few non-traditional places that we typically hadn’t been before,” said Witty. “We’re doing more calls in the Calgary, Chestermere, Langdon areas and beyond that … but I wouldn’t say (Wheatland County) is left unmanned.”
As reeve of Wheatland County, Koester praised Witty and his staff stating they have his complete trust.