City of Red Deer (Fire Department) ambulance at the front entrance of the Dr. Richard Parsons Auxiliary Hospital, in 1969. (Photo by Red Deer Archives P4688)

City of Red Deer (Fire Department) ambulance at the front entrance of the Dr. Richard Parsons Auxiliary Hospital, in 1969. (Photo by Red Deer Archives P4688)

Funeral homes provided ambulance service in Red Deer

There has been a lot of controversy recently on the level and efficiency of ambulance service in Central Alberta since everything, including dispatch, has been consolidated by Alberta Health Services/the provincial government.

What has been largely forgotten is that it was 60 years ago, on Feb. 1, 1962, that the City of Red Deer commenced the operation of a public municipal ambulance service using the fire department as the operators. It was a system that worked very well for decades.

After the First World War, Red Deer acquired its first ambulance service. It was provided by the local Jacques-Orme Funeral Home. The ambulance was also used as a hearse.

In the early 1920s, another funeral home began providing a competing ambulance service, again using a motor coach that was also a hearse. The rivalry between the two operators became quite fierce. One company put ads in the newspaper which stated, “Our Superior Service costs no more than Inferior Service.” Things got so bitter that the two owners got into a fistfight at the C.P.R. station when both showed up to collect a body that had been shipped up by train from Penhold.

For almost 40 years, the ambulance service continued to be operated by the Jacques-Orme Funeral Home, eventually renamed Brown and Johnson Funeral Home and Ambulance Service. The equipment used, however, came to be solely ambulances and not hearses.

By the late 1950s, the Funeral Home found it increasingly costly to run the ambulance service. In February 1959, a request was made to the city to provide a $1,500 subsidy. City council declined the request. However, they did agree to pay for ambulance services when called by the City Detail of the RCMP, when required for city employees injured on the job, and for all welfare cases chargeable to the city.

In 1961, Brown and Johnson was sold and became Eventide Funeral and Ambulance Service. The new owners decided that they could not afford to continue to cover the deficits of the four ambulances it was operating regionally from the profits on the funeral business. Consequently, in November 1961, they asked 18 Central Alberta towns, villages, and rural municipalities as well as the City of Red Deer for a per capita subsidy of the ambulance service.

The Alberta government offered the opinion that such a subsidy was not permissible under the province’s municipal government legislation. Eventide’s request was unanimously turned down.

Consequently, the company announced that it was ending ambulance service as of Jan. 31, 1962, except in cases where people had signed up to a subscriber plan. Membership fees for the plan were set at $10 for individuals and $5 each when they were part of a commercial group set up by their employers.

The city did not like the proposal that might exclude some people needing an ambulance. It moved quickly to institute its own ambulance service. It also passed a bylaw to license private ambulance service and to make it a requirement that any operator had to answer all calls that it received.

An ambulance was initially leased by the city from Sorenson Bus Lines at a cost of $150 per month. The decision was made to use the fire department as it was felt this would eliminate the need to hire any new ambulance staff.

The decision proved to be very popular, even though the cost per call was set at $10, up from the $6 for day calls and $8 for night calls which had been charged by the funeral home. A local auto dealership even offered to provide the gas, oil, and grease for the public ambulance at no charge to the city.

Meanwhile, the Eventide Funeral Home offered to continue to provide ambulance service if there was a special emergency and more ambulances were needed. Eventide kept their ambulances on hand until 1966.

(To be continued…)

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.