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EMS system facing several challenges, Carstairs council told

Manager responsible for the Carstairs zone spoke about current EMS resources in Carstairs, call volumes, communities in the area being served by the ambulance stationed in Carstairs, as well as some of the challenges facing the service
MVT stock EMS ambulance
Carstairs is currently served by one, 12-hour advanced life-support ambulance, which is staffed seven days a week and is operated from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Photo courtesy of Alberta Health Services EMS

CARSTAIRS - Emergency Medical Services (EMS) officials have updated town council on the status of emergency response in the town and surrounding area, including challenges facing the system such as increased overall call volumes region-wide.

The review came during the recent regularly scheduled council meeting, with EMS officials Randy Bryksa, Chris Baker and Curtis Swanson appearing as a delegation.

Bryksa is the associate executive director for EMS operation in Alberta Health Services' Calgary zone, which includes Carstairs. 

Swanson is an EMS director, whose portfolio is the day-to-day business of EMS in the Calgary zone, and Baker is a manager responsible for the Carstairs zone, one of five in the Calgary zone.

Baker spoke about current EMS resources in Carstairs, call volumes, communities in the area being served by the ambulance stationed in Carstairs, as well as some of the challenges facing the service.

“We are always really happy to engage in dialogue with the communities we are servicing within the Calgary zone,” said Baker. “We are always looking for opportunities for improvements.”

Carstairs is currently served by one, 12-hour advanced life-support ambulance, which is staffed seven days a week and is operated from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

As an advanced life-support ambulance, the unit has advanced assessment skills providing advanced life care to the community, he said.

“We also have a medical first response model that is supported by Carstairs fire and we are very lucky to continue to have the support service from STARS air ambulance as well,” he said. 

“We also have to registered AEDs (automated external defibrillator) registered within the community that can be deployed when a call comes in to our dispatch centre. This is a really big component to local communities to assist with sudden cardiac arrest.”

Any partners in the town and district who have access to AED machines are being encouraged to go to the www.heartsafe.ca website and have those AEDs registered.

“They do actually have a great impact on survivability for sudden cardiac arrests,” he said.

Regarding EMS call volumes in Carstairs from April 2021 to end March 2020 by quarter, the calls totalled 92, 80, 104 and 67 within the town, for a total of 343 calls in 12 months.

Forty-one per cent of call volume that is occurring in Carstairs is actually being serviced by Didsbury ambulances, 23 per cent by the Carstairs ambulance, 16 per cent is Olds, and five per cent is Airdrie.

“When multiple calls come in at the same time ambulances are coming in from different districts, but also the fact that the Carstairs ambulance is in operation from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., so there is a big period of time when we are going to be getting service from other districts as well,” he said. 

The Carstairs ambulance also services other communities in the district, he noted.

“We will always be dispatching our closest ambulance to our emergency responses,” he said. “Just because it is not the community ambulance that is servicing the area, we are utilizing an ebb and flow system to make sure that we are getting the closest, most appropriate truck to those calls.”

Carstairs ambulance actually does 46 per cent of its calls in Calgary, 15 per cent in Airdrie, nine per cent in Didsbury and six per cent in Carstairs, he said.

“That ambulance is doing a lot of work and it is not always in Carstairs,” he said. 

When patients are picked up in town they are transported to facilities outside the town, which do have a hospital, he noted.

Seventy-two per cent of patients are transported to Didsbury, with most of the others to Calgary, and some to Olds and Red Deer, he said.

“There are different services that are provided at different hospitals, so there is going to be a number of different patient sub-sets that go to different hospitals or different care facilities,” he said. “It’s not always based on closest facility but on the most appropriate facility.”

EMS officials have made some recent changes to ensure the smaller communities outside Calgary are getting their ambulances back in community after being called into the city, he said.

“We are making sure we are getting a greater level of support for the community by getting the EMS ambulances back into those communities as fast as we can,” he said.

There are a number of current challenges facing the overall EMS system, including increased call volumes, he said. 

“EMS has experienced an about 30 per cent increase across the board sustained elevation in our call event numbers,” he said. “You can imagine the strain that puts on the system. When anything goes up 30 per cent that is not just a blip on the radar; that is something that has increased the volume and the tone of the volume and held it there for months and months on end.”

Mitigation efforts now being implemented to address the volume pressures include triaging low acuity 911 calls which don’t require an immediate response by an ambulance, he said.

“They are being managed through our dispatch centres side by side with a physicians to be able to talk to these patients and find out whether or not they are truly a priority call or not, and be able to use that information to triage where we are sending our ambulances,” he said.

Staffing levels are also an ongoing challenge, he said.

Asked by Coun. Dean Allan about a possible second ambulance being stationed in Carstairs, Bryksa said, “At this point I have not additional funding for an additional resource in Carstairs. What we have added as an interim step is we have moved an inter-facility transport resource out into Airdrie, which will cover all of the northern transport corridor. 

“That way we are keeping the emergency resource that starts out of your community in your community.”

Additional staffing is being added to the EMS system, including in the Calgary zone, this year and in 2023, he said.

“While we welcome additional resources because of the increase in our event volumes, which is going to be sustained going forward, we also have to look at doing business more efficiently,” he said.

Council accepted the EMS delegation presentation as information.