December 4, 2023
A white ambulance is parked at the bay of a green wooden building
Ambulance New Brunswick has started using what it calls a computer-aided dispatch system that alerts paramedics to emergencies using artificial intelligence. (Radio-Canada)

Artificial intelligence now plays a role in how paramedics get dispatched to emergency calls in New Brunswick, and that has many of them concerned about possible hiccups and delays, says the head of the association representing them.

Ambulance New Brunswick last Monday rolled out what it calls a computer-aided dispatch system, which relies on AI and cellular devices to notify paramedics of emergency calls they’re being dispatched to.

It’s a system that’s causing unease and concern among paramedics over the possibility for glitches and malfunctions that could come up in already stressful life and death situations, said Derek Cassista, president of the Paramedics Association of New Brunswick.

“You can tell your phone, ‘Hey Siri, take me to A&W’, and I’m sure you’ve had times where that navigation fails or it takes you [on] what you know is the long way around when you think it’s the short way around.

“And you know, having an extra-long trip to A&W versus having an extra-long trip to someone’s house when they’re having a medical emergency obviously are two very different things.”

Susie Proulx-Daigle, president of the New Brunswick Union, which bargains on behalf of paramedics, said she also has concerns with the use of the technology.

“Ambulance NB did not make us aware of any changes to the dispatch system, it was brought to our attention by paramedics,” Proulx-Daigle said in an email.

“We have some major concerns regarding using text messages as they can be missed, coverage can be poor in various areas. There are several potential issues,” she said.

“We feel the radios are the best way to dispatch calls. Any new system with the potential for technical issues, such as interruptions in cell service, can have a major impact on someone’s life in an emergency situation.”

Radio system will remain as back-up: ANB

The computer-aided dispatch system is known as Intelligent Decision Support and is being delivered by a company called Logis, said Michel Gravel, the director for Ambulance New Brunswick’s medical communications management centre.

Having an extra-long trip to A&W versus having an extra-long trip to someone’s house when they’re having a medical emergency obviously are two very different things– Derek Cassista

In an email, Gravel said the “state-of-the-art” system will improve operational efficiency with a “powerful, automated and customizable dispatch engine, which allows us to tailor the system for our specific needs.”

Gravel said feedback from the majority of frontline staff has been “quite positive” since its roll-out.

“Like with any system update we recognize that there will be an adjustment period and during this initial implementation phase, Logis IDS has provided onsite support staff who are resolving any questions or issues as they arise.”

Gravel said even with the new system, Ambulance New Brunswick’s radio dispatching system will remain in place, along with a series of contingencies that can be transitioned to immediately in the event they are needed.

Gravel said the technology was first implemented two years ago in New Brunswick to improve non-emergency patient transfer services, and provide health-care partners with a platform to request patient transfer bookings online.

Fears of ‘isolation’

Cassista said under the previous system, paramedics would get dispatched to emergencies by a dispatcher who communicated instructions to them using radio.

He said the process involved the dispatcher using their own judgment to decide which paramedic was closest to the call, before picking up the radio and alerting them.

However, regardless of who was ultimately sent, all paramedics would be aware of where the call was for and who was going, as they were all tuned into the same radio frequency, Cassista said.

A portrait photo of a middle-aged man, who is smiling and looking at the camera.
Derek Cassista, president of the Paramedics Association of New Brunswick, said paramedics are concerned about hiccups that could result from the implementation of a system that uses artificial intelligence to dispatch them to emergency calls. (Submitted by Derek Cassista)

Under the new system, Cassista said each paramedic is being directed to calls individually, and without the direct knowledge of other paramedics.

“The concern I would say primarily arises from introducing an element of …isolation into the paramedic ranks by using the cell phone too much,” Cassista said.

“Whereas before, operating exclusively via radio, everyone can hear what’s going on. It feels like if something bad happens to me, if I’m caught in an unsafe environment, then people will have my back on on a quicker response rate.”

Cassista said many paramedics also feel like the technology is being introduced unnecessarily at the same time that Ambulance New Brunswick is failing to address shortcomings identified in a 2020 auditor-general’s report.

Some of those shortcomings relate to Ambulance New Brunswick’s contract with the province, and how that’s led to rural areas being under-served compared to urban areas.

“So we move ambulances into these urban centres from rural areas every single day, every single night… because of that operational contract and how the system is structured. It’s extremely inefficient,” Cassista said.

Hopeful about new technology

Cassista said while he shares in some of the hesitations around the new technology, he thinks adopting it will ultimately be a good thing so long as no issues come up.

So far, he said he hasn’t had any issues with the technology himself.

He is positive that once paramedics become more familiar with using it, the concerns they’ve shared with him will ebb.

“We need more artificial intelligence, we need more information sharing, we need to remove more of the the human error potential,” Cassista said.

“So I’m a big proponent of technology. We need innovation like you wouldn’t believe. So I’m not, I’m not against this. It’s about implementing it properly. Like all good projects, it can live or die in how it’s being implemented.”