George Orme, owner of Jacques-Orme Funeral Home, and Dr. Henry George are seen with the city’s first ambulance at the Red Deer Exhibition around 1925. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Archives)

George Orme, owner of Jacques-Orme Funeral Home, and Dr. Henry George are seen with the city’s first ambulance at the Red Deer Exhibition around 1925. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: Red Deer’s first ambulances were also used as hearses

There has been a great deal of media attention in recent weeks about ambulance and emergency services dispatch in Red Deer and across central Alberta.

Ambulance service is a critical part of the health-care system. The history of ambulances in our community goes back nearly 100 years.

It was in the early 1920s that 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.

Soon, another funeral home began providing a competing ambulance service, again using a motor coach that doubled as a hearse.

The rivalry between the two operators became quite fierce. Jacques-Orme put ads in the newspaper that stated, “Our Superior Service costs no more than Inferior Service.”

For 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, 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 was sold and became Eventide Funeral and Ambulance Service.

The new owners decided they could not afford to cover any deficits of the four ambulances they were operating regionally from their profits from 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 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 a proposal that might exclude some people needing an ambulance. It consequently moved quickly to institute its own public ambulance service.

It also passed a bylaw to license private ambulances and to make it a requirement that any operator had to answer all calls that it received, regardless of whether or not the call came from a subscriber to a private plan.

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 that had been charged by the funeral home.

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 a lengthy debate, in 1985, the city implemented a paramedic service. That same year, the Alberta Shock Trauma Rescue Society, or STARS, initiated a provincewide, non-profit and non-government air ambulance service.

These have proven to be very important additions to our community’s emergency health services, particularly in conjunction with the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, which is one of Alberta’s major regional health care facilities.

Local ambulance service is now the responsibility of Alberta Health Services as part of a provincial ambulance system. Dispatch, however, has continued to be made from a joint emergency services (fire department) and ambulance call centre in Red Deer.

After four previous and unsuccessful proposals, AHS recently announced that dispatch will soon be consolidated in Calgary (or Edmonton), again creating public controversy over the wisdom of the move.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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