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Is the New 811 Medical Assistance Line Enough?

The new phone program allows people in medical distress to call registered nurses for help

Alberta’s latest EMS-811 program is a telephone service that can save lives. The new phone number will help people who need professional assistance in a medical emergency.

Whether helping with poison control or offering fast responses from trained professionals, this service can be the difference between life and death for many Albertans.

So, what makes 811 any different than Alberta’s existing 911 program?

For starters, 811 calls will be handled by registered nurses, not 911 emergency call operators.

When you call 911 in Alberta with a non-urgent issue, you will be redirected to 811. A non-urgent problem is generally something that isn’t life-threatening.

For example, a mother may call 911 about a sudden rash on her child. She would be redirected to 811 and helped by registered nurses to deal with her child’s rash.

“Empowering dispatchers to divert non-urgent calls to a dedicated team of experienced nurses within 811 when clinically appropriate is a win for Albertans,” Alberta’s Health Minister Jason Copping said in a statement.

By redirecting non-urgent calls to 811, 911 operators can now focus on urgent calls. The new medical assistance phoneline is Alberta’s solution to the province’s ongoing 911 emergency call operator shortages.

Alberta is short of 911 emergency call operators due to illness, burnout, and stress. But with the number of 911 calls on the rise in Alberta, is the 811 program enough?

Some Albertans don’t think it is. 86-year-old Betty Ann Williams was the victim of a fatal dog attack in June 2022. Her neighbour Nicola Opsal saw Williams’ condition and immediately called 911.

But when Opsal’s call came in, it was assigned to the police and classified as a non-urgent dog bite. Opsal desperately called four times before an ambulance was finally assigned to Williams.

By the time Williams finally arrived at the hospital, an hour had passed since the incident. It was too late. Williams eventually passed away from her injuries at the hospital.

“Loss of life cannot be prepared for, but our actions will honour Betty Ann Williams, and we hope that we can repair trust in EMS,” said AHS interim CEO Mauro Chies.”

AHS, which handles Emergency medical services in Alberta, said many things led to the slow response to Williams’ attack, including short staffing and a lack of available ambulances.

In fact, on the day of Williams’ attack, six 911 emergency call operators were absent out of a total of 19 that were scheduled that day. Another 911 emergency call operator was on their scheduled break when the call came in.

“There are not enough ambulances to go around, there’s wait times in the hospitals waiting for EMS to release people…without people and resources, it’s not possible to have faith in a system where you don’t have enough people to run it,” said Opsal.

The 811 program will improve how many medical emergencies Alberta’s 911 emergency call operators can respond to. But it doesn’t change the fact that the province’s emergency medical services are understaffed.

Put yourself in Opsal’s shoes. Imagine the dread she must have felt as she desperately tried to get an ambulance to Williams. The 811 program is a temporary solution. We need a long-term solution.

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