BONNYVILLE – It’s official, for the next 18 months, the Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority (BRFA) will continue to be the provider of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in the Bonnyville region.
After nine years under the same service provider contract for local ambulance operations, Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the BRFA have signed a new short-term agreement. The previous agreement was set to lapse on Aug. 31.
The BRFA, which represents the Municipal District and Town of Bonnyville, will continue to provide EMS services for the foreseeable future.
In order to remain the region’s EMS provider, the BRFA’s only choice was to sign an 18-month agreement, said Regional Fire Chief Dan Heney, with the BRFA.
“We told them that it was our intention, even if we didn't get the deal we wanted, that we are committed to being the provider for this area,” Heney said.
“The original contract was a five-year contract that had two, two-year extensions. So, we've been under contract with AHS for nine years under the same contract... Now this was our opportunity to negotiate some new things.”
While BRFA representatives didn’t get everything they wanted, such as a longer-term deal and a switch from a contractor relationship to a partnership, they did get one thing – a wage boost for staff.
“I’ll be able to get my staff a raise for the first time in nine years,” said Heney, adding that within that period there were no clauses that allowed for the re-opening of wages negotiations.
In nine years, Bonnyville paramedics only received one cost of living adjustment, according to Heney.
“Once (the agreement with AHS) is finalized, then we'll sit down and start negotiating a new contract with their union. But we'll actually be able to offer them money for the first time in a long time and not just token money, but an actual raise to catch them up.”
The BRFA has roughly 40 EMS staff that are split between full-time and casual employees. These members also fall under the Health Science Assocation of Alberta (HSAA) union for healthcare professionals.
Out of all the staff and administration of the Authority’s three divisions – Fire, EMS, and 911 – only paramedics are unionized.
“My other staff, my non-unionized staff, I can give them raises. I can give them regular cost of living increases. But I can't do that with my EMS staff because we're locked into a collective agreement for X-period of time. You can only give what you’re given,” said the regional fire chief.
Heney noted that the only way the Authority could provide a raise to EMS staff is if both councils of the partnering municipalities made the decision to pay over and above what AHS pays, “because as a contract provider, we have a fixed amount of money that AHS pays us to provide EMS services.”
Wage disparity along the rural-urban divide
One of the BRFA’s greatest causes for concern is the wage disparity between rural and urban paramedics.
And while the latest agreement with AHS allows for a wage bump for local EMS crews, it was not enough to reach pay parity with urban EMS counterparts, stated Heney.
“One of the things that we've been frustrated with is that a paramedic working in Edmonton makes $6 an hour more than a paramedic who works in Bonnyville.”
Heney, who worked as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in his early career, says this is not only unacceptable, but makes no sense, especially in rural regions struggling to retain staff that often relocate to urban centers.
“I don't think that it's harder to work EMS in Edmonton. I think it's easier to work in EMS in metro (areas) because you're so close to hospital care versus our folks who are working out here in this massive 6,100 km region of the MD where they could be responding almost one hour one way and then – they are it,” he said.
It has become a challenge to ask staff, who are often from outside the community, to work under these exceptionally challenging circumstances and earn less, he says.
"We are asking them to come in and stay here and we hope that we can hold on to them, but it’s hard to do,” acknowledged the regional fire chief.
Heney believes having standardized pay across the province would help municipalities like Bonnyville retain EMS staff, rather than seeing new recruits leave rural communities for urban areas that are able to offer higher wages. Wages that are in part determined by individual AHS and contractor service agreements.
"I'm going to continue to fight for (pay parity) because that's an important piece for me and our board is resolute behind us,” said Heney.
“We may never get wage parity, but we're going to continue to fight for them and continue to try to bump (wages) up as high as we can because our EMS staff deserve it, they work hard.”
Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee
The findings of a provincial advisory committee formed to provide immediate and long-term recommendations to better support staff and improve Alberta’s EMS system are expected to be released in September.
The Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee was established as a reaction to the growing demand for EMS services across the province in recent years.
Provincial statistics on the government’s website show that “Calls to 911 have increased 30 per cent since the spring of 2021, largely related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis.”
While this increase does not reflect the hours EMS crews spend transporting patients between rural and urban centers, the province does acknowledge that paramedics and the EMS system are facing increased pressures.
The committee submitted their initial formal report to the Minister of Health in May 2022, and a final report with long-term recommendations was slated to be complete by July 2022.
“They are going to provide recommendations to government, who will then direct AHS to make changes,” explained Heney. “There's another election coming so my fear is, ‘Does it get lost in the shuffle?’ I hope not.”