July 02, 2014

Ambulance times should be readily available

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin residents and politicians love to complain about ambulance response times, but the pastime has run into a major snag. It seems no one can find out what the average response time is for the Town of Erin.

Service has probably improved since an ambulance was stationed at the new Hillsburgh fire hall last October, since firefighters are being called out less often to medical emergencies, but people deserve to know the exact quality of the service for which they pay.

The province covers 50% of land ambulance costs. County taxpayers chip in $7.8 million annually (including $1.2 million from Erin), which pays 20% of the costs. The City of Guelph pays 30%, and controls the budget and staffing levels.

The Guelph-based service is responsible for Erin, but the overall system is designed to be “seamless”. Many Erin calls are handled by Acton or Caledon ambulances, depending on how busy each station is and who can get to the scene most quickly. The Hillsburgh ambulance is only on-duty from 11 am to 11 pm.

The Ministry of Health has set a target of 8 minutes for an ambulance to get to a serious emergency. Guelph City Council has approved a 65% compliance rate for this response, averaged for all of Guelph and Wellington.

Overall, the ambulance service exceeds that rate, meeting the standard 67% of the time. In the city, they meet the standard 77% of the time, while in the entire County, the average is only 49%.

No one expects rural service to match urban service, but meeting the provincial standard 49% of the time for serious calls should not be considered acceptable.

Mayor Lou Maieron suspects that Erin’s response times are even worse than the county average, since some other communities have a full-time ambulance, as well as a hospital, where ambulances are often delayed.

I contacted Guelph Fire and Emergency Services Chief Shawn Armstrong in February and March this year looking for Erin statistics for total ambulance calls, the number of Code 4 (serious) calls, and the average times.

I received nothing, the same as Mayor Maieron and County Councillor Ken Chapman, who have been asking for years. I asked Erin Fire Chief Dan Callaghan, but he doesn’t have the information. The full County Council voted in March to request it, but still nothing.

Armstrong is not on staff at Wellington County – he works for the City of Guelph. The City has a new Communication Model, in which the ambulance service is to be “Transparent, Accessible and Accountable”.

As part of that, I heard that Armstrong was coming to make a presentation to Erin Town Council. So I emailed him and asked him to bring along the Erin data. He didn’t answer, and he didn’t bring it.

He did tell councillors that the ambulance staff want to improve service, so that compliance rates will be “tighter” in the County, and that the Tiered Response Agreement which calls out firefighters to some medical emergencies needs to be improved.

He had a nice Powerpoint presentation, with big arrows showing how the County and local Towns have the right to pose questions about service delivery. A right to receive answers was not specifically mentioned.

At the meeting, Councillor John Brennan asked him for the local data. Armstrong did not say that he wasn’t allowed to provide it, that it was too complicated to compile, that we’d have to contact the Ministry of Health or that it was none of our business.

He simply said, “We don’t have that data tonight, but we would certainly be willing to provide that data if council so wishes.” He suggested it might be ready in October.