Adding more ambulances to the provincial fleet doesn't address the most pressing issue facing Alberta Emergency Medical Services, believes Brian Winter, chair of the Cochrane EMS Crisis Citizens Action Group (CAG). He says the bigger question is who will you get to operate them.

"They can't staff what they've got right now," says Winter. "There are thousands of shifts going unmanned. I think they need to rally around their staff, make them feel appreciated, and turn their part-time staff into full-time staff. They want to do that, but they've been saying that for a while, and not rallying around their staff, to me, is shameful."

Additionally, he says they haven't replaced chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck, who officially left the position on Jan. 9, and they're running the ship without a captain.

"Their staff is their most valuable asset, as in any organization, and they're just not doing enough to make them feel appreciated."

While providing an update yesterday, government officials say they will be recruiting overseas in such countries as Australia. Right here in Alberta, though, we do have paramedics who rather work in the private sector. 

"I know paramedics that would prefer to work in the oilfield," says Winter. "The wages are comparable and they're willing to sacrifice going in for two and out for two rather than working in a bureaucracy where they aren't appreciated."

"You can't go to work where people dread going to work."

A retired paramedic, Winter suggested the province should hire a group of five to 10 people, break the province into regions and hold a series of town halls to listen to the concerns and suggestions of paramedics.

He says the same appreciation has to be extended to the students graduating from post-secondary institutions.

Winter wants to see the government speed up the process of assigning vendor numbers to ambulance services to handle non-emergent transfers. He says a company here in town made an inquiry immediately following the December announcement and has yet to receive a response.

"They need to speed that process up. Once it's in place, it's going to ease the strain on the full-time EMS crews that are protecting our municipalities."

Despite expressing these concerns, Winter praised comments made yesterday by Highwood MLA RJ Sigurdson, who is parliamentary secretary for EMS reforms and co-chairs the Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee. Sigurdson spoke to the moral injured suffered by EMS staff left waiting in the hallways of hospitals.

"I've talked to paramedics that are sitting in the hallway looking after one, two or three patients, and they hear on the radio there's a call that they should be at and the closest ambulance is 45 minutes to an hour away, and that's a moral injury. I couldn't say that any better, that was just an awesome statement he made."

Sigurdson said all 53 recommendations of the EMS advisory committee have been accepted to tackle areas of performance, accountability, capability operations, efficiencies, and workforce.

"I'm proud to say we have already begun putting some of these recommendations into action to improve EMS coverage and to ease pressure on staff," he stated.

They include pilots underway that empower firefighter-paramedics to make decisions such as cancelling ambulance dispatch if they can treat patients on-site and refer them to other services.

Winter says that is nothing new and was being done when he was a paramedic.

"Premier Smith is working at it, gnawing away at it, but it's still in crisis," says Winter. "The red alerts that are happening are just unbelievable."

The local citizens' action group meets this week.