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New 911 dispatch system keeps New Brunswick firefighters off medical calls


Fire Chief Greg Partridge has been with Dorchester Fire and Rescue for nearly five decades, he’s seen it all, including the importance of having first responders on scene as quickly as possible.

“We’ve made the difference in a lot of lives in the time that we’ve been here,” he said. “Just to arrive here, you see the look in people’s faces of relief that someone’s there to do something.”

He says on average the department receives 50 to 60 calls a year with 70 per cent of those being medical since the addition of medical calls 20 years ago. In emergencies, an ambulance is also dispatched from Sackville, N.B.

“On a good day, 15 to 20 minutes. We’ve had times where it’s been over an hour,” said Partridge. “They’ve come clear from Norton, I believe, to Dorchester before and in Sackville, there’s two ambulances, but one is just for transfer and the other one is usually waiting at the hospital to be unloaded.”

However, he says first responders from the fire department are on scene within three to four minutes -- at least they could be if they are dispatched. But a new system implemented across the province in January is leaving fire departments in the dark and residents left waiting.

“Up until Jan. 9 of 2023, we were dispatched to medical calls in two ways,” explained Riverview Fire and Rescue Chief Robin True.

“When the call went into 911 the PSAP operator would use a list of keywords to identify calls that we should be sent to. Failing that if they weren’t able to identify a call based on those keywords, it would go to Medic Centre.”

The exterior of Riverview Fire and Rescue in Riverview, N.B., is pictured on Feb. 1, 2023. (Alana Pickrell/CTV)

True says the Medic Centre would then call fire dispatch and send out a crew -- a safety net that is no longer happening.

“We saw over the period from Jan. 9 until Jan. 25 when we were notified, our call volume for medical calls went down approximately one call per day,” he said.

“Last year, we responded to 1,121 medical calls out of the 1,450 approximate calls that we had. So medical first response is a big piece of what we do. Our firefighters take a lot of pride in providing medical service to the residents, so it’s a very important issue to us.”

Both fire departments say there has been no communication about the changes, just suddenly fewer calls coming into each station.

“It’s absurd really,” said Partridge. “We’re here doing a service and no one was told what this new system was going to be. Was it coming in because it was going to save money? Or was it coming in because it’s supposed to improve the system? [The] problem is it’s not working either way.”

Right now, it’s unclear how big of an impact this has had across the province, or how many fire departments have been affected, but officials say that the New Brunswick Association of Fire Chiefs is looking into it.

“I think the biggest concern overall is the lack of a system for medical first response dispatch that is consistent and professional,” said True, pointing out that Nova Scotia has a very reliable dispatching system.

“Obviously, I hope that there is some gentle pressure put on the province and Medavie Health Services to work with us to find a solution,” he said. “We’re certainly willing and able to respond to medical response calls, so we’re just looking for a dispatch system that will make that happen.”

In a statement to CTV News, Ambulance New Brunswick’s Medical Communications Management Centre director, Michel Gravel, said in part that, “Ambulance New Brunswick (ANB) has never had the mandate to notify or dispatch fire departments.”

Adding, “ANB was always able to request assistance from fire departments as needed; however, with the previous system, fire departments were also able to listen to ANB calls being dispatched over the radio system and decide to join certain calls at their own discretion. With the new system, fire departments are only notified when ANB requests their assistance for ambulance calls as needed.”

But, True says this leaves it up to each individual paramedic and it isn’t consistent.

“The concern now is we may see calls fall through the cracks without that system,” he said.

As for Partridge, he knows what can happen if this isn’t fixed quickly.

“It’s been probably 10 years ago now that we never got the call, at a local restaurant, walking distance from our fire hall, we were actually here at the time, never got called, choking victim, they passed away,” he said.

“This has got to get corrected sooner than later, like yesterday because it’s only going to get worse.” Top Stories

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