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Ponoka mayor goes to bat for local firefighters

Slow ambulance response putting pressure on volunteer firefighters
A Ponoka Regional Fire Services firefighter at the scene of a collision in 2017. (Black Press file photo)

On Nov. 21 a pedestrian was hit by a vehicle in Ponoka.

Volunteer firefighters were first on the scene and immediately called for an ambulance. The nearest was in Bashaw, about 30 minutes away.

That ambulance was about 10 minutes into its trip when it was diverted to Red Deer. Another ambulance was dispatched from Leduc, more than 40 minutes away.

While all this was going on, the injured pedestrian was fading. He was seizing and his heartbeat dropped to 28 beats per minute.


Ambulance response times too long but progress being made: health officials

“At that time rather than continue to wait for an ambulance and lose the patient, our firefighters made the decision to pack him into the box of one of their pickups, and with a police escort got him to our local hospital,” says Ponoka Mayor Kevin Ferguson in a Nov. 23 letter sent to Premier Danielle Smith, Health Minister Jason Copping and other municipal representatives.

“This is a summation of the report I read, and the complete absurdity of this situation I find astounding.”

Only two months earlier, Ponoka County Regional Fire Services volunteers who cover the town were once again called on to do their best to care for an injured person, this time a gunshot victim. The nearest available ambulance was coming from Red Deer, 45 minutes away.

“In the meantime, our volunteer fire department bandaged and stabilized the victim, and some of the members learned how to deal with a person who had their ear shot off,” wrote Ferguson.

While long ambulance waits are obviously distressing to the injured, Ferguson is also frustrated with the demands put on local firefighters, who must act as medical first responders, often for lengthy periods, while they await an ambulance and its paramedics or emergency medical responders.

In the last year, volunteer firefighters have been put in the position of being the first medical help to arrive 18 times.

“What is the issue is that after they have been faced with the trauma of a catastrophic medical event, they then have to go back to their real jobs the following day,” Ferguson says in his letter.

“So, I put it to you, that while we are trying to somehow figure our way around this ambulance crisis, we are doing it on the backs of our rural volunteer firefighters.

“We are running out of time and something needs to be done not only for our cities, but for our rural communities too.”

Steve Buick, Copping’s press secretary, said the health minister takes Ferguson’s concerns seriously and will be asking RJ Sigurdson, Highwood MLA and parliamentary secretary for emergency medical services, to meet with the mayor and ensure concerns are addressed in recommendations coming soon.

“The minister has listened to municipal leaders over the past year through his Advisory Committee on EMS and acted on their concerns, but it it’s clear we need to do more,” said Buick in an email.

Copping is working with the parliamentary secretary on new initiatives to support EMS, including a plan to move forward on all 53 recommendations from the EMS advisory committee’s final report, he added.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ferguson said he wrote his letter, not to heap criticism on the government and the health system, but to seek ways that communities and health and government representatives can work together towards improving the ambulance situation and to ease the burden on volunteer firefighters.

“From where I sit, they are our heroes. They are absolutely heroic to come and volunteer to serve our community.

“And at the end of the day, they go back home, get up the next day and go to work,” he said.

“If we burn them out, what are you going to do next?”

Ferguson said he sent his letter to central Alberta’s other mayors and to organizations representing municipalities to encourage cooperation.

“I will tell you right up front, I don’t think our situation in Ponoka is much different than in much of rural Alberta.

“The point behind this is to get the dialogue going. I’m not looking for villains or culprits. I’m looking for a solution.”

Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson said EMS representatives plan to meet with Ponoka officials to update them on progress on reducing ambulance response times.

Williamson acknowledged the increase in 911 call volumes has put more pressure on other first responders.

“Medical First Response is designed to be a valuable first response when EMS is attending to other patients, and we are grateful we have been able to count on the Ponoka Fire Department for its participation, particularly in the cases the mayor has mentioned, as we share the same goal of ensuring the citizens of Ponoka are well cared for.”

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