OLDS — A meeting about the frustrations of local ambulance service has resulted in a plan to hold a second meeting on the subject, possibly on Dec. 9.
The initial meeting, held Nov. 16 in the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #105, attracted 14 people and lasted for more than 90 minutes.
In the end, Daryl Lowey, who lives in Mountain View County, four kilometres south of Olds, was chosen as a kind of chairman and former Olds town councillor Mary Anne Overwater agreed to serve as vice-chair of a new committee.
The other 12 people who attended that initial meeting agreed to provide contact information in order to be kept in the loop.
The meeting was called at the behest of Calgary paramedic Don Sharpe and Olds paramedic Larry Gratton, both of whom have been in the ambulance business for about 40 years.
Basically they said ambulances stationed in Olds and other rural communities are not always available in their home communities because Alberta Health Services (AHS) which oversees ambulance operation, sends them on calls to other communities, often as far as Calgary. And they can end up being there for hours, Sharpe said.
Other concerns raised included the hours that paramedics work under the current structure.
The plan now is to for the local committee to share concerns and information with about a dozen Citizen Action Committees (CACs) that have been set up all over the province who face the same issues.
They hope to bring pressure to bear to get better ambulance service and keep their ambulances in their home communities.
Between now and Dec. 9, Lowey and Overwater plan to get a better understanding of what other CACs are doing and devise a structure for the Olds committee.
Sharpe recommended making sure the local committee has representatives of town council and the business community as well as ordinary residents.
He also noted the other communities established over the past three months or so are very active on Facebook.
Walter and Sam Moebis said their son Marc, 40, died of a heart attack they said was brought on by the stress and hours he worked as a paramedic and a paramedic supervisor in Lamont, located just north of Edmonton. He left behind a wife and three children.
They said when he died, Marc had been working a 96-hour shift and in his supervisory capacity, was trying to staff ambulances during his off hours.
They said he was so committed to the business and concerned about the stresses paramedics were under that he formed the Alberta Paramedics Association to bring about change.
Lowey said he could relate to all those frustrations. He used to own an ambulance service in Humboldt, Saskatchewan.
“I used to be that person that was doing those 12, 14, 16, 18-hour days, so I can understand the stresses,” he said.
Former Didsbury town councillor Erhard Poggemiller and his wife Evelyn were among those attending the meeting.
Sharpe said ambulance service in Alberta is so spotty that in some regions, there may only be one ambulance for every 70,000 people.
Poggemiller said he used to be a town councillor in Saskatchewan. He said there they used to operate five ambulances for about 4,500 people and council ran their hospital so efficiently it had a $1 million surplus.
Gratton said over his career he’s done everything from serving as a paramedic to running an ambulance for all over Mountain View County before it got taken over by AHS about 15 years ago.
He said before that takeover, the local service had about five ambulances for a county population of about 17,000 to 19,000 people.
He said before the takeover, at least in Olds, ambulance service was operated with paid and volunteer staff.
Sharpe suggested part of the solution to ensure better ambulance service might be to have mix of government-owned/provided ambulances as well as those made available by private companies.
He said there are several such private companies in Alberta as a result of oilpatch operations.
At the end of the meeting, during an interview, Lowey was asked if he believes the CACs, including the Olds one, will be able to make a difference and bring about change in ambulance availability.
“I’m never going to tell you it’s the right vehicle,” he said. “What I will tell you is it’s not the wrong vehicle. And what I mean by that is nothing else has really seemed to work. And so maybe we’re clutching at straws and maybe we’re not, but we’ve got to do something.
“And so I think that if we organize ourselves and approach this in a professional manner, then I think we can raise eyebrows.”
Lowey expressed confidence that by networking with other such committees they may collectively have more power.
Sharpe said he’s tried over the years to bring about change in the system to improve ambulance availability in local communities and change other frustrations like the long working hours but got nowhere.
He said he even had a meeting with former Health Minister Tyler Shandro shortly after he was elected, but said that effort too was unsuccessful.
Spurring creation of the CACs is his latest effort.
"There’s a lot of people in charge, but there are no leaders and there’s nobody accountable. That's the issue,” Sharpe said during an interview.
“You can’t find anybody in Alberta Health who’s going to be accountable for the fact there’s no ambulance here when you need it. That’s going to have to come from the people in this community, just like every other community.”
Walter Moebis was asked by the Albertan if he believes the action committees in Olds and collectively will make a difference.
Like others in the room, Moebis said neither the current United Conservative Party government nor the New Democratic Party government that preceded it did anything to solve these problems.
"I’m glad to see that there is some initiative taken. This is the very grass roots of it. It’s definitely got to go further than this,” Moebis said.
“I think there’s people in the union and AHS that have to be held accountable – of all political stripes.”