Court of Queen’s Bench grants interim injunction to province in EMS dispatch dispute

A judge has granted an interim injunction that stops a northern Alberta municipality from withdrawing from the provincial ambulance dispatch service.

Justice Kent Davidson heard a request Friday from the province seeking a court order to require the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to resume transferring medical emergency calls to Alberta Health Services.

Lawyers for the government suggested that the northern municipality was operating illegally by refusing to send 911 calls to provincial dispatch.

The municipality, which includes Fort McMurray, stopped transferring calls at noon Thursday after its council decided the new service is putting patients at risk due to delays and confusion.

The lawyer representing the municipality, Chris Davis, said it was in the public interest for the municipality to keep handling emergency medical calls through its own dispatch centre, which already handles fire calls.

Davis said the municipality decided to stop transferring 911 calls after noticing delays in the provincial system that “jeopardized” patient service. 

Davidson questioned Davis, asking if the municipality expected “perfection” after AHS took over for just three weeks. 

Davis said AHS has looked at doing this takeover multiple times, but always stopped.

He later said AHS had five months of planning to prepare for this transition, but that didn’t offer a satisfactory outcome.

Shalee Kushnerick, the lawyer representing AHS, said the municipality acted “unilaterally and with no authority.” 

She added that the municipality “unlawfully usurped” AHS, describing the actions as “reckless.” 

Kushnerick said this prevents AHS from carrying out its mandate, which includes emergency dispatch. 

AHS had contracted out the dispatch work to the municipality in 2016, but that contract ended in January.

When it did, AHS went in and removed dispatch equipment.

Kushnerick said the municipality no longer has access to the provincial system or patient records and that the municipality would also be unable to respond to an emergency transfer out of a hospital. 

She added AHS has certain requirements, including reporting and data standards.

“The municipality can’t be permitted to continue their unlawful conduct,” Kushnerick said.  

In its injunction application, AHS said the municipality is not approved to operate a dispatch centre, nor has it requested approval from the minister to operate one. 

The interim injunction, which takes effect at noon Saturday, is to be in place until an application for a permanent order can be heard in March.

The province consolidated emergency medical dispatch services to save money, and recently forced Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge and Wood Buffalo to make the change despite their objections.

The municipalities have fought the decision and offered to pay for local dispatch service. 

‘It’s not over yet’

In a written statement, Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said he respects the court’s decision, but “this does not mean the province is better at dispatching ambulances. It just means that this provincial government is willing to force us to comply.” 

Scott pointed out that council unanimously voted to stop transferring 911 calls. He said he was concerned the decision will “negatively affect patient outcomes in my region.” 

In an interview with CBC News Friday afternoon, Scott said a full hearing where the municipality can present all its evidence was a positive step.

“It’s not over yet,” he said.  

“I’m still committed to this cause.”

Scott said he doesn’t feel the province has listened to the municipality in a meaningful way and he encouraged residents with dispatch concerns to reach out.

“We’ve been hearing that AHS has a broken system,” said Scott. “It’s just a system that doesn’t work.” 

“Imagine if you’re having a heart attack or stroke, is it better to have an ambulance dispatched by AHS or by your local municipality who has been doing it since 1979 and can do it effectively.” 

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