Land ambulance decisions get mixed reviews from politicians

Land ambulance enhancements announced last week as part of Guelph’s 2008 budget are being met with mixed reviews across Wellington County.
Guelph council approved several changes to land ambulance service in the city and county, including:
– an additional ambulance to serve southern Guelph and Puslinch Township;
– increased hours at the am­bulance station in Drayton; and
– relocating an ambulance to Guelph’s city core.
The additional ambulance will serve southern Guelph and Puslinch Township 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That change is expected to be instituted by July.
And ambulance hours in Drayton will expand to eight hours a day, seven days a week (currently the ambulance there is on call Monday to Fri­day only). It is unclear ex­actly when that change will take effect, but it is expected to take considerably less time than the Guelph addition.
Puslinch Mayor Brad Whit­combe called the approvals, “some positive News for Puslinch and all of Wellington County.”
Sandy Smith agreed – to an extent.
Smith is the field manager with Royal City Ambulance, the independent ambulance company that serves Guelph and Wellington County.
“The enhancement in Guelph [and Puslinch] is huge. It’s long overdue,” he said.
He added that the extra ambulance in the southern part of the city will allow ambulances in Wellington County to better serve the communities they are intended to serve.
“It’s a great benefit to the county as well,” he said, ex­plaining that county vehicles are often used to support Guelph.
However, Smith said he is “very disappointed” Guelph  council ignored two major recommendations of a 2007 independent report, which were also approved by the land am­bulance committee.
One was providing paramedic response units (PRU) in rural locations, specifically one to serve the municipalities of Guelph-Eramosa and Erin. And the other was to fund more management staff to help make supervisors accessible to staff and the public.
Smith explained that the 2007 call volume for Royal City Ambulance increased by about 10,000 over the previous year, a jump of about 27 per cent.
“We’re really feeling the strain,” he said in an interview last week.
Erin Mayor Rod Finnie was very upset the city refused to fund a paramedic response unit in his municipality.
The PRUs, designed not to transport patients but just to provide first-response medical treatment, could help address re­sponse times in Erin, which are the worst in the county, Finnie said.
“We need an ambulance stationed in Erin to meet the needs of our residents,” the mayor said in a letter to Guelph city council. “You are mandated to provide us a reasonable level of service, and we are more than paying for that level of service.”
This year’s land ambulance budget is around $9.8-million, with the province paying about $4.7-million, the city contributing about $2.9-million, and the county about $2.2-million.
However, Smith explained that although the county pays about 47% of the costs not covered by the province, Royal City is under the direct management of the city. When the city budget is approved, the county is sent a bill for its portion of the land ambulance costs.
There were 34,238 total calls last year, Finnie said, which works out to an average cost to taxpayers of about $150 per call. Of those calls, 635 were in Erin, so the town should have paid $95,250, he added.
However, Erin taxpayers contribute about 16 per cent of the county budget, Finnie said, which means the town actually paid $354,650 for ambulance services.
“In effect, the taxpayers in E­rin are subsidizing the system to the tune of $259,400,” Finnie said, which is unacceptable considering Erin is the only municipality in the county with response times above the provincial recommendation of 15 minutes or less.
Erin county councillor Lou Maieron has also written Guelph council about the “substandard” ambulance service in his area.
“Lives are at stake here and I certainly hope politics are not in play on such an important issue,” he said in the letter.  
But  unlike Finnie, Maieron was thankful the city did not approve a PRU for Erin and Guelph-Eramosa Township.
“There should be no dual standard in ambulance service in the the county-city catchment area,” he said.
Smith explained that Royal City Ambulance currently em­ploys 108 staff members, of which about 65 per cent are full time.
There are five ambulances located in Guelph (two in the north, two in the south, and one in the city core), as well as stations in Fergus, Mount Forest, Arthur, Harriston, and Drayton.
But Smith acknowledged that Royal City “constantly move[s] vehicles around” to provide the best service for everyone.
“Ultimately it’s one big service,” he said of the city-county area. “How it’s split up is irrelevant.”
However, Smith did say that because of the increased call volume, “It’s a huge balancing act,” to ensure equal service to everyone in the area.
That’s why he was seeking management help in the form of “front-line” supervisors, which he said are “desperately” needed.
“But those are the cards we’ve been dealt, so we’ll do the best we can,” Smith said of the decisions made by the city.
County Warden John Green was unavailable for comment.