Concerns raised about the ambulance service

The wait time in Rimbey for an ambulance could be close to half an hour if the emergency vehicle comes from Ponoka.

The wait time in Rimbey for an ambulance could be close to half an hour if the emergency vehicle comes from Ponoka.

Rimbey Fire Chief John Weisgerber confirmed fire department members were asked to assist a Rimbey patient until an ambulance from Ponoka arrived on the scene last week.

John Barry, Manager of Operations for Guardian Ambulance in Ponoka, Wetaskiwin and Innisfail said it takes about 20 to 25 minutes for an ambulance to arrive on scene from Ponoka to Rimbey. However, he said to his knowledge, Guardian is not called in often to respond to Rimbey calls.

“It’s pretty rare for us to respond in Rimbey. It’s certainly not weekly,” he said.

Terry Schueler, CEO of Associated Ambulance & Services, said situations do occur when both the ambulances in Rimbey are out on a call and it is necessary to call in another ambulance service.

However, he said such a decision is made by dispatchers from Alberta Health Services.

“Every truck is contracted to Alberta Health Services from a deployment centre. They can use any truck they want depending on call volume. Any available ambulance can do a call anywhere in Alberta. There are no boundaries.”

The CAO said cross coverage is available to ensure the patient is looked after until the ambulance arrives. Depending on the severity of the situation, STARS may be called in or volunteers from the fire department may be called in to stabilize the patient until help can arrive.

Schueler said the system works fairly well to ensure patients are moved in a timely fashion. However, he said it isn’t perfect.

“You can’t plug all the holes.”

Jim Garland, executive director for EMS Dispatch Communication and Deployment said the government has put in place a “borderless provincial system,” since it took over ambulance services in 2009.

“Communities didn’t rely on each other before (for ambulance service.)”. He said under the government’s system, ambulances respond to wherever the need is greatest at any given time.

Garland said when ambulances in a community are out on a call, another ambulance may be called in, whether it is sitting in the next closest community, or en route, depending on the geographical distance. Associated Ambulance in Rimbey, Sylvan Lake and Red Deer are handled through a dispatch centre in Red Deer. Guardian Ambulance in Ponoka is dispatched through Rocky Mountain House.

Weisgerber doesn’t see the system as a step forward.

“Fifteen years ago volunteers ran the ambulance. The government didn’t want that. They wanted trained people to do it. Now, it seems we are slowly gong back there.”

The fire chief said the department is receiving calls from dispatch to attend to patients who need medical attention until an ambulance arrives. He said such calls leave members frustrated and upset, which he believes are understandable reactions.

“They are volunteers. They don’t want to do that. They are not in it to do medical assists. Some simply won’t respond. It is their choice. They are volunteers and it’s putting them in a situation for which they are not trained and for which they don’t have the proper equipment.”

However, Garland said some communities train firefighters to provide medical support.

Weisgerber is not in favor of rural ambulances being called out to respond to calls in other communities.

“It leaves the community without an ambulance. They (the government) think it’s working real well, but it isn’t. And the government doesn’t care.”

The fire chief believes small town ambulances are being sent to cover calls in larger centres where the volume is higher.

“That’s where the votes come from,” he said.

Associated Ambulance took over the service in Rimbey last summer. The service has two ambulances and four staff on duty 24/7. They can also have 200 casual staff from within their service area whom can be called on if necessary.