Nordegg residents say they are too often being left without ambulance coverage and forced to rely on units based nearly an hour or more away.
All-year resident Scott Sheldrake said when he moved out there five years ago there was a full-time ambulance service.
Now, the local ambulance is available only a small percentage of the time, meaning emergency calls must be responded to from other communities, most 45 minutes or more away.
“It’s not really public information that it’s not manned, and that scares me,” said the married father of two children, 15 months and four years old. “There’s some older people in their 70s and 80s out here and I don’t know if they’re aware there’s no ambulance.”
Adding to the danger is the unpredictable nature of winter driving conditions.
“It’s kind of concerning that we’re supposed to have (an ambulance) and we don’t have one.”
Sheldrake said he has raised his concerns with Alberta Health Services but got no clear reason as to why service is not available full-time.
There are local people trained in emergency response who are willing to volunteer, but
“If you have someone who wants to be on your ambulance department you should be jumping up and down and doing everything you can to get these guys on so you have a manned unit out here.”
Part-time resident Jason Millar said he’s spoken with Alberta Health Services officials and believes they are trying to boost service. But the loss of local volunteers and the difficulty in filling shifts with outsiders is a challenge.
“My goal is to get a minimum full-time basic care level there, at least as a starting point. And then to have an advanced life support because of the distance to the nearest hospital.”
Some older residents have already left the community because of the risk in not being able to get to hospital quickly.
It’s not just local residents who will benefit from more ambulance coverage. There are many who work in area industries, who live on reserves or are recreational visitors.
He estimates that the local population ranges from around 1,900 during the off-season to as high as 7,300 during peak periods.
Clearwater County has received about a dozen letters on the issue from residents of the hamlet about 90 km west of Rocky Mountain House, said chief administrative officer Ron Leaf.
Residents are concerned that a local staffed ambulance is only available a minority of the time. That means ambulance must be dispatched from Rocky, or even farther afield, from Caroline (135 km), Hinton (150 km), Jasper (160 km), Sylvan Lake (170 km). A federally funded ambulance from O’Chiese Reserve is about 60 km away.
Leaf said the county used to run the ambulance service, which was staffed with trained volunteers, many of whom are no longer available. At that time, it was operated around the clock.
Ambulance service in the county, including Nordegg, is among the items that council is expected to raise at the annual Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties convention next month.
Unhappiness with ambulance service since the province took over is nothing new in Clearwater County.
“Council has been lobbying about what they consider to be a degradation in EMS. That’s been one of their key strategic points for the last three years.
“This isn’t a new discussion or new topic. There’s a number of concerns. Principally, it’s response times.”
Councillors have questioned whether AHS takes into enough consideration the sprawling size of the county and its dramatic seasonal population fluctuations.
Kerry Bales, Central Zone lead for Alberta Health Services, says in a statement that when local volunteers are unavailable the next closest ambulance is dispatched, often from Rocky Mountain House.
“In life-threatening cases, we respond as quickly as possible. Weather conditions and volumes can impact our response times,” he says.
Besides ground ambulances, STARS, air ambulances and local medical first responders (volunteer firefighters) can be dispatched.
“Our focus is on ensuring that residents receive high-quality, timely treatment from EMS services in the area.”