Manitoba farmers are concerned medical assistance won’t be there when they need it most.
Last summer, the province’s Progressive Conservative government announced it would close 23 emergency medical service (or EMS) stations. Now, producers are calling on the government to provide more information about how emergency services will be provided once those stations are shuttered.
“That’s a great concern for farmers and rural communities,” said Simon Ellis, who represents District 7. He put forward a resolution on the issue at Keystone Agricultural Producers’ annual general meeting in Winnipeg last week.
“Response times are critical to people who have been injured and we don’t want to see farmers losing their lives or their infrastructure, if it’s in the case of a fire,” he said. “We want to make sure they know how to get to us and that they can get to us in a timely fashion.”
Stations slated for closure include those in Bissett, Reynolds, Riverton, Lundar, Pinawa, Manitou, Swan Lake, Elie, Cartwright, Treherne, Ethelbert, Reston, Rossburn, Balder, Birtle, Oak Lake, McCreary, Hartney, Hamiota, Grandview, Elkhorn, Wawanesa and Boissevain. The province has also announced that new EMS stations will be built in Alonsa, Eriksdale, Manigotagan, Miniota and Cowan. Existing stations in Glenboro and Virden will be upgraded to regional hubs.
A total of 29 new paramedic positions will also be created under the new model, although some will be filled by moving existing staff from on-call and call-back shifts to full-time positions, a move the provincial government says will save money.
“It’s quite concerning,” said Dan Mazier, KAP president. The Justice-area farmer said it’s hard to fathom how greater distances between EMS stations could result in shorter wait times for those facing an emergency.
He also questions the process used to determine which stations would be closed, noting there was little, if any, consultation with rural municipalities or other rural organizations about the issue prior to the government’s announcement last summer.
Recommendations to close the 23 stations came from the EMS Review Task Force, which was created by the previous provincial government in 2013. The task force included representatives from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Red River College, the paramedics’ union, an air ambulance service provider, a rural EMS manager and provincial bureaucrats. However, organizations representing rural municipalities and rural health authorities were not part of the task force.
“It’s a lot more top-down than I thought it was going to be and that’s always concerning when you start to see governments doing that, especially in our health-care system,” Mazier said.
Staff not facilities
Manitoba’s Minister of Agriculture Ralph Eichler, spoke to producers at the meeting and noted the government has been in discussions with STARS Air Ambulance regarding the changes to rural service, but directed further questions to Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen.
For his part, the health minister emphasized that the new model is not about brick-and-mortar ambulance garages.
“It’s about investing in more full-time paramedics working in rural Manitoba so that we are able to match resources with call volumes and provide Manitobans with a reliable and responsive service when they need it,” Goertzen said. “While we understand that change is difficult, particularly in rural communities, we are certain that Manitobans will experience either the same or better levels of service from highly trained and professional paramedics who will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
But EMS station closures were not the only health-care concern brought forward at the Keystone meeting. Even under the existing EMS model, many producers say response times are hampered by a patchwork system used to direct ambulances and fire apparatus.
A second resolution moved by Ellis proposed that Keystone Agricultural Producers “lobby the Manitoba government to investigate the challenges associated with identifying rural locations and access routes,” and “develop a solution that will standardize and simplify the ability of emergency responders to identify these locations and the best routes for accessing them.”
Several producers spoke to the issue.
“I hope that everybody can support this,” said Don Dewar, who represents District 11, recalling the recent death of a neighbour who had suffered a heart attack.
“The ambulance got lost and he died,” said Dewar. “Now whether he would have survived or not is another question, but the ambulance took three-quarters of an hour to find him six miles from Dauphin.”
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He said that 911 calls in his area are routed through Brandon and that call takers there are unfamiliar with the area being serviced.
“I’m quicker phoning the local fire department and telling it where I am,” he said. “We really need to get this sorted out in this province.”
How properties are identified varies from municipality to municipality and producers at the meeting expressed uncertainty as to whether they should give emergency dispatchers the number assigned to the property, a GPS location or landmark-based directions.
Keith Castonguay, director of the Manitoba Farm Safety Program, said he has spoken to the Office of the Fire Commissioner and representatives from the RCMP about the issues around effectively locating emergency callers. He said that better training and standardization are key to improving response times.
“It became very clear it is a fractured system and there are multiple layers involved with it,” he said.
Les Ferris of District 2 added that a big part of the problem with giving out the so-called 911 number issued to a property is that signage can be inconsistent and difficult to spot. “Part of the problem is the standardization of the road markers, some municipalities jumped before there was a standard and those numbers are the blue ones that a lot of people see; of course the green ones are standard and a lot easier to identify and read,” he said.
Mazier noted that poor cellular service also continues to hamper emergency services and communication in rural areas of the province.
“We all understand that things gotta change, that things are going to be modernized, we see that and do that in agriculture quite a bit and certainly in health services. But there’s got to be better tools to stop people from slipping through the cracks,” he said.
Both resolutions were passed.