Area councillors pushing hard for better, faster ambulance service

About six years ago, Bob Wilson, 49 and seem­ingly fit, died of a heart attack.

His widow, Sandra, said on Aug. 8 that was “the worst day of my life.”

Bob Wilson appeared to be having seizures, but it was ac­tually a massive heart attack. Sandra waited and waited for an ambulance while a fire­fighter neighbour and his reg­istered nurse wife tried to keep him alive.

“I thought, ‘It’s 2am. What’s stopping them? What’s taking so long?’ ” Barb Wilson recalled last weekend.

County councillor Lou Maie­ron has been questioning the response times for ambu­lances in Erin for several years now. He cited recent incidents of a boy who had seizures and a man cleaning eaves who was stung, fell off a ladder and was seriously injured. They had one thing in common: a long wait for medical aid from an am­bulance.

The Ministry of Health and Long Term Care has mandated an average response time for ambulances of just over 14 minutes, but responses in Erin, at 23 minutes and 23 seconds, are the worst in Wellington Coun­ty. Maieron led a dele­gation to a joint ambulance com­mittee meeting with Guelph and Well­ington County councillors this summer to make his case for improved service, but there will likely be no decision until later this year.

Mayor Rod Finnie told the committee to offer proposals and he is willing to talk finan­cing.

Meanwhile, everyone waits.

Wilson said the night her husband died, “Everyone was there before the ambulance arrived.”

She admitted that in such a time of stress, it is difficult to know how long it took for one to arrive, but she estimated it was “about a half hour.” She also noted medical experts say minutes are crucial, especially with heart attacks.

Wilson said when the am­bulance personnel arrived and tried to revive Bob, she had no idea where they were from until one of the attendants said he had to call his boss – and she learned they came from Caledon.

Ontario is supposed to have a seamless ambulance response service. Maieron said a dis­patcher in Cambridge sends ambulances where they are need­ed within Guelph and Wellington, and also informs Peel, Halton and other neigh­bouring services about the calls. That way, they can shift personnel and vehicles to cover areas where the service is busy. In theory, that should allow good coverage, but Maieron said for some reason, Erin proves the exception, even though it gets service from Peel and Halton Region and Duff­erin County, as well service from Guelph.

Maieron said his report to the committee “demonstrated that whereas the nearest hos­pitals to Erin are Orangeville, Georgetown, Guelph, Bramp­ton [and] Fergus – all having ambulances – are within 20 to 45 minutes travel time to Erin. Erin, situated in the middle (the hole) of this geographic area, chronically, for some reason, has the slowest ambulance response times in the county.”

What really annoyed Maie­ron is the number of calls being answered by ambulance service from Halton and Dufferin. He said 90% of all ambulance services to Erin comes from outside the county and the city where Erin residents pay taxes for ambulance protection.

“I was stunned when I found out,” he said.

Then again, he noted he should not be so surprised. Georgetown and Orangeville hospitals are a mere 15 to 20 minutes away from Erin. Guelph is 30, and Fergus is 45.

Royal City Ambulance Ser­vices used to be the private provider, but Guelph has now taken re­sponsibility for it as of January, and is studying the problem. In a report to the joint city and county committee, Director of Emergency Ser­vices Shawn Armstrong and Guelph-Wellington Emergency Medical Services Chief Sandy Smith suggested adding a 12-hour shift in Erin, seven  days a week com­mencing June 1. That recommendation was not im­plemented.

Guelph councillors decided $400,000 it would cost this year – after the $10-million-plus budget was struck – was too expensive.

Previous to that, the com­mittee added an extra ambu­lance for 84 hours to its Rock­wood station for a six month trial, but even Arm­strong and  Smith admitted in their report that the lion’s share of the calls handled by that service are to Guelph. Their report for the May committee meeting noted there had been 932 calls to the Rockwood station. Of those, 99 were for Guelph-Eramosa, 73 were for Erin, and the rest in the city.

They told the committee, “While there have been positive reductions times to this portion of the coverage area, future incremental enhance­ments will further assist in decreasing pressures on ambu­lance response times. It is concluded another additional ambulance for 12 hours of peak time coverage to this area will reduce response times by at least 10%.”

Maieron wants their recom­mendation adopted.

“There are our own EMS staff recommending an addi­tional 12 hours a day in Erin,” said Maieron. “That’s why I led that delegation. Does someone have to die?”

Wilson replied, “We’ve al­ready had that.”

So, Maieron wondered, “Does someone important have to die? Does a child have to die?”

He said he has told the committee that he has heard rum­blings some of the other communities providing ambu­lances are becoming upset at constantly having to come to Erin’s rescue.

Maieron said he has es­timates that Erin pays $450,000 a year in taxes for ambulance services, and he said he told the committee if the local agency is unwilling to provide it, perhaps Erin taxpayers can shop around for better service.

“At 90:10 [service ratio], it’s not reciprocal for Guelph and Wellington. We’re paying that money to Guelph and Well­ington and we’re depen­dent on the kindness of other municipalities.”

He added he told the com­mittee, “You can’t expect $450,000 a year for 10% of the service.”

Maieron added that he wants Guelph councillors to co­nsider the legal implications of failure to provide service. To that end, he gave them a copy of an article from the Oran­geville Banner, which reported an Ontario court of appeal recently overturned the right of a family to sue the province  and others over shortfalls in ambulance service.

In that case, a Shel­burne family was given the right to sue the Ontario government be­cause when their son was injured on a ski hill and taken to hospital, there was no air ambulance service to transport him to a facility better suited to his treatment. Patrick Heaslip died of his injuries.

The Banner reported he was taken to an Alliston hospital, and a doctor there requested air ambulance to take him to St. Michael’s Hospital, in Toronto. The air ambulance operator stated there would be a two hour wait, so Heaslip was taken by land ambulance to New­mark­et, where he was pro­nounced dead.

The Banner reported that in its  claim against the province and others, Denise, Gary, and Greg Heaslip stated the air ambulance operator failed to reassign a helicopter from a patient with non-life threat­ening injuries – despite a policy requiring that to be done. They further suggested two other air ambulances were unavailable; one because of maintenance and the other because the pilot had reached the maximum number of flying hours allowed for the day.

The Banner reported that Justice Robert J. Sharpe wrote in the appeals decision, with agreement from fellow justices David Watt and G.J. Epstein,  “The duty of care alleged here belongs within the established category of a public authority’s negligent failure to act in ac­cordance with the established policy where it is reasonably foreseeable that failure to do so will cause physical harm to the plaintiff. The motion judge erred in characterizing the claim as implicating a policy decision as opposed to an operational decision. The facts pleaded bring this case within the category of operational negligence.”

The Banner added that 26 specific instances of negligence were alleged against the pro­vince, including failure to “ensure the appropriate number of air ambulance helicopters and pilots were available and on duty at the time of the incident,” failure to “redirect an air ambulance when they knew or ought to have known it would lead to the death of Patrick Heaslip,” and it “cre­ated a situation of danger and emergency.”

Maieron said Erin council has discussed the issue, and Finnie explained the city’s re­action that there is not enough money to provide more service right now, but the issue will be discussed again.

Meanwhile, town coun­cil­lors Ken Chapman and Josie Wintersinger started a petition. Maieron added his support by collecting signatures on the internet and by hand. He said many people are simply asking to sign to give their support.

He said Chapman, who was unavailable to comment, was the busiest, and has about 800 signatures. Maieron has collec­ted about 50 signatures after starting a web petition on July 25. There are also petitions at various businesses around the community.

Until he has a web site operational, he has asked that those supporting better ambulance service email him at lou@­

The link to read the report to the joint ambulance committee is http://www.­guelph.­ca/uploads/­Council_­and_Committees/CSC/lac_agenda_051309.pdf.