Red Deer Fire Hall pictured here in August 1962. The white vehicle, on the left, was Red Deer’s City operated ambulance. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

Red Deer Fire Hall pictured here in August 1962. The white vehicle, on the left, was Red Deer’s City operated ambulance. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: How City of Red Deer implemented paramedic service

On Feb. 1, 1962, there was a significant advance in the provision of municipal services in Red Deer. That was when the city commenced the operation of a municipal ambulance service using the fire department as the operators.

For several decades, going back to the early 1920s, ambulance service was provided by local funeral homes. Also, while two funeral homes once provided ambulance service, eventually only one, Brown and Johnson, was the provider.

In February 1959, the funeral home made a request to the city to provide a $1,500 subsidy. City council declined the request, but 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 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. Consequently, in November 1961, they asked 18 Central Alberta 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 province’s municipal government legislation. Eventide’s request was unanimously turned down.

Consequently, the funeral home 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 consequently 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.

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 ambulances on hand until 1966.

In November 1963, the city decided to purchase an ambulance from Sorenson’s at a cost of $7,200. Over the years, more ambulances were purchased along with more technologically advanced equipment.

After the opening of the Red Deer Regional Hospital in 1981 and a vast improvement in technology, there was increasing pressure to provide higher standards of ambulance service. Where once the service was Basic Life Support (B.L.S.), which involved first aid and transport, there was a strong lobby to provide a level of Advanced Life Support, including paramedic service.

After a lengthy debate, in 1985, the city implemented a paramedic service, with the eventual creation of fire medics, who were both trained fire fighters and advance care or primary care paramedics. That same year, the Alberta Shock Trauma Rescue Society or STARS initiated a provincial air ambulance service. STARS remains a non-government, non-profit service.

In 2008, the provincial government created the province-wide Alberta Health Services, replacing the previous Regional Health Authorities. In 2009, AHS took over control of provincial ambulance/paramedic service. However, the local Red Deer ambulance/paramedic continued as contractor to AHS.

Since then, AHS has made several changes, in the name of efficiency, cost control and regionalization. Since then, where once Red Deer had nine ambulances stationed in the city, it now has five.

In 2021, AHS took over dispatch of ambulance/paramedic services. The City of Red Deer and other Alberta municipalities have strongly protested the move with the contention that this has been to the detriment, not enhancement, of regional ambulance/paramedic service. That debate continues.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.