Opinion: Alberta’s EMS is calling 911. Will we pick up?

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When many of us have a bad day at work, a meeting may run long. Perhaps a colleague behaves badly or some crucial equipment fails.

When a paramedic in Alberta has a bad day, they may be at a car accident trying to save someone’s life as another lies nearby, deceased, from a gruesome injury. When this happens, as it has, the EMS professionals have to move on to their next call. And it happens again and again.

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Consider a paramedic dealing with the death of a baby. This person was not debriefed or monitored for post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD). Rather, they were given access to an addiction counsellor, not someone trained to help them with a potentially debilitating and lifelong psychological injury.

Over the past four years, more than 1,300 of Alberta’s 5,600 paramedics have suffered a psychological injury. These injuries account for one of every four workplace absences among paramedics. And, on average, 20 per cent of paramedics are on sick leave at any time. That’s more than four times the average of other AHS staff. Paramedics are missing more time due to psychological injury than all other causes combined for all other AHS staff. That lost time has very real implications for paramedics, but also for anyone calling 911 in Alberta

Since 2023, during mediation between AHS and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, paramedics have been eligible for reimbursement of up to $3,000 a year for counselling. At the rate of $220 per hour, as suggested by the Psychological Association of Alberta, this will not provide a lot of counselling. One EMS professional found himself talking with an AHS-provided counsellor who said she’s “not allowed to handle first responder stuff,” and referred him to an agency three hours away that was not eligible for reimbursement.

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EMS does not have access to an on-staff or contracted psychologist with expertise in PTSD. When the NDP was in government, hydraulic stretchers were brought in for all ambulances to reduce physical injuries and a program was started that gave paramedics two days of training on how to recognize signs of PTSD.

The UCP government cancelled the program.

Although a peer support program is finally being developed, it is not enough. Professional supports are needed.

The average EMS career in Alberta is less than nine years. As Alberta’s population grows every month, paramedics are leaving the profession or the province. In the past two years, the vacancy rate in EMS positions has nearly doubled. The paramedics remaining are seeing a bigger workload, more patients and higher exposure to traumatic events and illnesses. We need to pay attention to this. Retention is an opportunity to increase our workforce.

More than 18 months ago, the government published the Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee report. The need for more paramedics was clear. But it was also clear we need to provide them with adequate mental-health support to retain those we already have. Several recommendations were made and we need to see action on that — including changes to shift scheduling and “working with system partners to enhance access to mental-health supports.

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If we only focus on reducing response times — an important goal — we risk losing the chance to build a long-term, sustainable workforce. There was nothing in the 2024-25 budget or strategic plan to retain paramedics by providing the professional support needed. We need to take better care of our first responders.

Because we are only as safe as our EMS. These are the people we rely on if we’re involved in an incident.

They want to help us. They want to be fit and mentally ready to take on whatever emergency they encounter.

But we need to help them, too. It is time for action.

Luanne Metz is the MLA for Calgary-Varsity and the Opposition critic for health (emergency and surgical care). Before being elected, Metz was a professor at the University of Calgary. She is a globally recognized medical researcher, physician and leader in health-care delivery.

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