March 05, 2014

County seeks better ambulance response data

As published in The Erin Advocate

County councillors remain in the dark about ambulance response times in their local communities, and will ask the Guelph-Wellington Emergency Medical Service (EMS) to provide more detailed monthly reports.

Erin Mayor Lou Maieron got unanimous approval last week for a motion to seek expanded data, with the request channeled through the Social Services Committee.

He said the service reports changed several years ago to show only district-wide average response times, instead of details for each municipality. EMS started stationing an ambulance 12 hours a day at the new Hillsburgh Fire Station last year, and the mayor would like to know if that has improved the service.

“Without the information, we’re sort of lost,” he said. “I’ve heard from my colleagues in the northern municipalities that ambulances are being pulled towards Guelph, leaving their communities a little bit vulnerable for ambulance service.” 

Seconding the motion was Erin Councillor Ken Chapman, who pointed out that the EMS website does not list the ambulance stationed part-time in Hillsburgh, or its schedule, as it does for other locations in the county.

“I have no idea when that ambulance comes into town or when it leaves,” said Chapman, noting his request last year for that information has not been answered. 

“I think that we are being ignored, that we are getting poor service if any service at all at times. When I see that there is more than one municipality that gets less than 24 hour a day service, that is not the way I think the people of Wellington County should be treated.”

The Ministry of Health standard is a response time of less than 15 minutes, 90% of the time. Based on all 18,380 calls in 2012, Guelph-Wellington had an average response time of 12.25 minutes, 90% of the time, according to their website.

“They homogenize it over the whole reporting area," said Maieron. "In a large urban centre like the City of Guelph, a focussed area with very little traffic time, you can generate some wonderful numbers. But when you’re dealing with the rural municipalities, the people on the outskirts, I don’t think the numbers are that good. The information is collected. It’s there. I’ve requested it numerous times in my four plus years on Social Services, and I haven’t received one piece of paper.”

Guelph Fire Chief Shawn Armstrong, the General Manager of Emergency Services including ambulance, could not be reached for comment. An EMS staff report last year said deteriorating response times have become “unacceptable” and urged Guelph council to hire 24 more paramedics and buy two more ambulances over the next four years. That decision has not bee made, but it would raise Guelph's costs by $1.4 million by the fourth year and Wellington County's costs by $950,000.

The communities of Guelph, Fergus, Mount Forest, Arthur and Harriston have 24 hour ambulance coverage from Wellington-Guelph EMS, under regular conditions, according to the EMS website. Drayton, Rockwood and Erin (Hillsburgh) have part-time coverage, plus support from neighbouring services.

Wellington North Mayor Ray Tout said he is concerned about ambulances being deployed away from his area at busy times, since it puts a greater strain on his fire department to provide initial response.

“We’re paying for an ambulance service,” he said, noting the $7.8 million contributed by the county, which covers 20% of the EMS costs. The City of Guelph pays 30% and the province 50%. “I guess what I’m asking for is communication, what services they provide, when they’re in our area. I’m not 100% sure the head office is being as up front with us as their staff is.”

Councillor Gord Tosh said while more information is needed, reports will not be identical to those in the past since they were previously generated by the provincial government. 

Wellington-Guelph EMS would not be providing call data from neighbouring ambulance services. Ambulances are dispatched into the Town of Erin from stations such as Acton or Caledon when they can provide the closest service.

Councillor Chapman said that with 12 of 15 ambulances staffed during the day, and 8 at night, “we don’t need more ambulances, we need more staff.” He added that the province should be able to supply detailed information about ambulance calls.

“They don’t want to give it to us, simply because it points out that we in Wellington County are not getting the service.”

Last year’s report by Stephen Dewar, EMS Chief for Guelph-Wellington EMS, said a growing population and the number of people with significant illnesses being discharged early from hospitals have contributed to an increase in the number of calls and the length of time ambulances are at those calls. Calls increased seven per cent per year in 2011 and 2012, well beyond the population growth.

The report said “patient outcomes” are being impacted by the fact ambulances are having an increasingly difficult time in hitting response target times. Those targets are laid out by the province, with the city setting compliance rates.

For the most serious calls requiring resuscitation, the province expects an ambulance to be on the scene in eight minutes or less. The city expects its ambulances to hit that target 65 per cent of the time, but they were actually only hitting it 63 per cent of the time.

“In 2014 we'll be looking to add more staff hours,” said Dewar. “We have some ambulances that aren't being staffed 24 hours a day. We'll also be continuing to try and use what we have as efficiently as possible.”

With files from Metroland News Services