EMS response time for life-threatening events

Time from when a 9-1-1 call is received by AHS EMS dispatch to when the first ambulance arrives at the scene of the incident. (see data dictionary)

What do you see?

  • Are there any trends over time in the zone and geographic area where you live?
  • Are there differences in response times between the same geographic areas in different zones (e.g., Metro / Urban areas)?

Whether you’re a patient, provider, or health system administrator, thinking about why these differences might exist can start conversations and lead to solutions for improved quality of healthcare.

*Alberta Health Services, Emergency Medical Services, System Performance and Innovation. “EMS Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) data.” (2020) [Data showing median and 90th percentile results for the length of time patients experiencing a life-threatening medical event wait for EMS staff to arrive, from when the 9-1-1 call is received by AHS EMS dispatch to when the first ambulance arrives at the scene of the incident, by zone, geographic area, month, and quarter].

Understanding “EMS response time for life-threatening events”

When a life-threatening medical event occurs, the amount of time between the occurrence of the incident and when EMS staff arrive is critical.

The chart above tells us how long patients experiencing a life-threatening medical event wait for EMS staff to arrive, from when the 9-1-1 call is received by Alberta Health Services (AHS) EMS dispatch to when the first ambulance arrives at the scene of the incident. When dispatch receives a 9-1-1 call, the severity of the patient’s condition is assessed (triaged) in order to send the most appropriate help. All 9-1-1 calls in Alberta are assessed using the same triage criteria to determine patients’ level of urgency. Included in this chart are only those incidents triaged as life-threatening at the time of the 9-1-1 call.

Alberta is a large, geographically diverse province, where EMS response times will vary in relation to travel distances, and other subtleties unique to different areas of the province. To account for this, in the chart above, times are reported by four distinct geographic areas, based on the exact location of the life-threatening medical event:

  • Metro / Urban areas
  • Smaller communities (population more than 3,000 people)
  • Rural areas
  • Remote areas

What are the response time targets?

For life-threatening events, AHS has set response time targets for each of the four geographical areas listed above. Within each area, targets have been set for both the median, and 90th percentile. For 90th percentile, this means 9 out of 10 patients waited less than this amount of time, and 1 out of 10 patients waited longer. For Median (50th percentile), this means 5 out of 10 patients waited less than this amount of time, and 5 out of 10 patients waited longer. For more information about this target, please click here.

When there are differences between response times for the same geographic areas in different zones, or for the same geographic location and zone over many months, it is a flag to ask why. Whether response times are getting longer or shorter, this information can be used to start a conversation between patients, EMS staff, and Alberta Health Services about possible causes and opportunities for improvement.

The Health Quality Council of Alberta uses the Alberta Quality Matrix for Health as a way of organizing information and thinking around the complexity of the healthcare system. This measure can be used as input to assess the emergency department’s performance in these dimensions of quality:

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Dimensions of Quality

  • Acceptability 
  • Accessibility 
  • Appropriateness 
  • Effectiveness 
  • Efficiency 
  • Safety