'It falls directly on the current government': Concern being expressed over EMS wait times in rural Alberta

Code red has become the new norm for Alberta EMS paramedics in some southern Alberta communities.

That's when there is no ambulance available to respond when someone calls for help. A code red in larger centres has a trickle down effect as paramedics are pulled from other communities like Coaldale.

“When they're out of town, then we have to rely on ambulances coming from out of district,” said Coaldale’s fire chief, Kevin McKeown.

“We're not immune to the problem, we've long been isolated down here for a long time, but we're really starting to see the stress on the system, where I think you're starting to see the issue provincially.”

EMS are seeing staffing shortages from the pandemic, opioid crisis, staff illness or fatigue. McKeown says the average wait time for EMS from Lethbridge to Coaldale is 15 minutes, but when crews can't be deployed from there, that’s when wait times can stack up.

“We're waiting for an ambulance to come from either Raymond or Picture Butte, so that’s typically where we see our longest waits, and we could be waiting on scene for 17 to 20 minutes for one of those other communities to get here,” said McKeown.

But when time is of the essence, every second counts.

“If there’s no ambulance in Coaldale, then our fire department will respond first,” said McKeown.

“Even if it’s a non-emergency, just so we can get that timely care and someone’s not waiting an extended period of time.”

The village of Stirling is no stranger to long wait times either. The nearest health centre to them is in Raymond, with average wait times being roughly 18 minutes, but when Raymond can't send out help, wait times double.

“When the Raymond unit is not unavailable, we often have service actually from Lethbridge,” said Stirling Mayor Trevor Lewington.

“So those response times can be as long as 35 to 40 minutes. That’s a very long time for people to be dealing with an emergency situation.”

To ensure the safety of his residents, Lewington has taken matters into his own hands.

“The volunteers of our fire department have to be trained to provide medical first response, so as a municipality, we’re providing some of that training, some of that equipment and really taking on that responsibility to fill in the gaps,” said Lewington.


Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) said the South Zone has seen multiple code red situations this week.

“In this province, we operate on code red every single day, as the city of Edmonton or Calgary draws down all the resources available, pulling in Cochrane’s, pulling in Lethbridge’s, all the way to Calgary to respond to calls now,” said HSAA president  Mike Parker.

“That’s what it’s been looking like for months and months now. What that leaves us with is a call volume growth over a 10-year stratus, and no available resources to respond.”

EMS has seen a 30 per cent rise in emergency calls across Alberta over the last several months, as call volumes have reached historic levels.

“It falls directly on the current government, they know what’s going on,” said Parker.

“There’s no hiding it anymore. This is an emergency system that should have the surge capacity needed to counter some of the smaller things. We can’t make it through an average day without calling a code red, and drawing in resources from 100 kilometres away.”  

HSAA said they will be providing an update on Monday in regards to the recent code red situations in the South Zone.