Nenshi demands apology from chief paramedic for ‘defamatory’ comments on EMS dispatch concerns

An update from Alberta Health Services on the contentious EMS dispatch consolidation in Calgary turned sour on Monday, leading a councillor and the mayor to demand an apology from the province’s chief paramedic.

Ward 7 Counillor Druh Farrell asked whether Darren Sandbeck believes increased EMS response times can harm patient outcomes.

“Absolutely, response times do have an impact on patient outcomes, but we also know that those response times are most relevant in the most clinically-critical patients,” Sandbeck said. “And so what we want to build is a system where we get to the most clinically-critical patient as fast as possible.”

Read more: Calgary councillors to discuss EMS dispatch consolidation in special meeting Monday

“So will you apologize and retract your statement that the mayor has been making untrue and disrespectful statements when merely quoting you and your sources?” Farrell responded.

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Farrell was referring to a statement that was made public on Sep. 17, when Health Minister Tyler Shandro sent a letter to mayor, councillors and Calgary MLAs in response to Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s concerns about the consolidation. Attached to that letter was a letter from Sandbeck.

“The mayor of Calgary continues to make statements that, ‘People are going to die,’ and quote AHS as saying this is ‘no big deal as few people die in the first few minutes anyway,’” Sandbeck wrote. “This is untrue and disrespectful.”

Monday morning, Sandbeck balked at publicly apologizing moments after making statements that matched what Nenshi said.

“I think that if an apology is warranted, I will make it,” Sandbeck said. “I would look to have some more conversation around that, absolutely.”

Read more: ‘It will cost lives’: Alberta mayors continue fight against EMS dispatch changes

Dr. Ted Braun, AHS vice-president and medical director of clinical operations, interjected, saying AHS is committed to working with municipalities and mayors in a “respectful and collaborative way” through the transition.

Nenshi thanked Braun for the platitudes and pressed further, saying the issue wasn’t addressed.

“The issue at hand is the professional conduct of one of your employees and whether or not AHS stands by that kind of personal attack,” Nenshi said.

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Braun suggested council chambers wasn’t the appropriate place to address a human resources matter like an apology.

“You can understand why I don’t like being called a liar. So thank you, Dr. Braun, I will take your assurance that this will be dealt with quickly and as a human resources matter and a professionalism matter for ever to health services, and I’ll leave it at that,” Nenshi said.

When reached for comment, AHS said it had “nothing further to add to the conversation.”

Click to play video 'Alberta health minister explains EMS dispatch consolidation under AHS' Alberta health minister explains EMS dispatch consolidation under AHS

Alberta health minister explains EMS dispatch consolidation under AHS

Nenshi told reporters he expects an apology and retraction of Sandbeck’s comments.

“Absolutely, I consider it to be defamatory,” the mayor said. “And I have every confidence that AHS will do the right thing.”

AHS presentation leaves questions

Sandbeck, Braun and Dr. Mark MacKenzie, senior medical director of EMS, told council that callers to 911 will not experience any changes to call transfers.

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They also said the consolidation will save the province $6 million, calling it a “fiscally responsible transition” that will prioritize patient safety and ensure dispatch services are consistent and sustainable.

They also addressed so-called “myths” like response times and the need to have all dispatchers in the same room.

AHS showed a graph illustrating EMS response times since July 2017 — after AHS assumed EMS dispatch within the Calgary 911 dispatch centre.

They did not show how EMS consolidation affected dispatch and response times in other municipalities. Sandbeck committed to bringing city and AHS teams together to share that data.

A slide from an AHS presentation on EMS dispatch consolidation in Calgary, presented to Calgary city council on Nov. 2, 2020.
A slide from an AHS presentation on EMS dispatch consolidation in Calgary, presented to Calgary city council on Nov. 2, 2020. AHS / provided

Nenshi also asked where the $6 million in savings — a number he noted hadn’t changed in eight years — would come from and asked to see a cash flow analysis, which Braun said would be provided when it was available.

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“These questions have been asked many, many, many times,” Nenshi said Monday. “And the fact that they didn’t have the data or seemed surprised by the questions — they’re making a mega-million-dollar decision and they didn’t have the data right in their hands? That shocks me.”

Read more: Alberta mayors reiterate opposition to EMS consolidation, appeal to Kenney to intervene

Ward 6 Councillor Jeff Davison asked how the public was consulted on the change to EMS dispatch.

“Public consultation was not a component of the plan during this stage,” Sandbeck said. “This is the end result of a decision that was made by the provincial government in 2008 when they made a policy decision to move EMS into the health system — the newly formed Alberta Health Services at the time.”

Calgary’s mayor said he and his fellow mayors from Red Deer, Lethbridge and the R.M. of Wood Buffalo will be asking Premier Jason Kenney to meet and reconsider the change.

“It’s up to the premier to determine whether he wants to do the right thing for Albertans or if he wants to let his health minister hang out on yet another bad decision.”

Letter to Mayor Nenshi re: EMS dispatch consolidation

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