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Annapolis County firefighter sounds alarm after 2-hour wait for ambulances

It took over two hours for the first ambulance to arrive at the scene of a crash in Litchfield, N.S., on Feb. 15, according to Alex Cranton, deputy chief of the Annapolis Royal Volunteer Fire Department. He said slow response times in the area are becoming more common.  (Emergency Health Services - image credit)
It took over two hours for the first ambulance to arrive at the scene of a crash in Litchfield, N.S., on Feb. 15, according to Alex Cranton, deputy chief of the Annapolis Royal Volunteer Fire Department. He said slow response times in the area are becoming more common. (Emergency Health Services - image credit)

A two-hour wait for ambulances following an Annapolis County car crash in which three children and the driver were seriously injured has reignited calls for the province to improve emergency care in the area.

Police, fire and ambulance services were alerted to a single-car crash in Litchfield, N.S., on the evening of Feb. 15, according to an RCMP news release.

Police said an 11-year-old child was airlifted to Halifax by LifeFlight with serious injuries. A four-year-old, a nine-year-old, and the 37-year-old driver were transported to hospital by ambulance, all with serious injuries. RCMP said investigators believe alcohol was involved.

Alex Cranton, deputy chief of the Annapolis Royal Volunteer Fire Department, said waiting more than two hours for the ambulances to arrive is not unusual in the area.

"It used to be every once in a while you'd have a shortage of ambulances, but now it seems to be an everyday thing," he said. "We need to have more ambulances readily available and furthermore we should have a hospital closer in our area."

In September 2023, a report from the Office of the Auditor General said ambulance response times were increasing as a result of emergency department closures. That means ambulances have to drive further to deliver patients to medical care.

Local emergency rooms closed 

The emergency room at Annapolis Community Health Centre was closed in 2022 and replaced with an urgent treatment centre, which can treat non-life-threatening health concerns.

At the time of the crash, the closest emergency rooms were closed including the ER at Digby General Hospital.

Meanwhile, the emergency room at Soldiers Memorial Hospital in Middleton is only open Monday to Thursday  from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Even if it had been open in the evening, ambulances can only deliver patients meeting certain criteria, according to the health authority.

"This criteria includes having vital signs within normal limits and the patient is able to sit safely in a chair or wheelchair. Patients in critical situations, requiring stabilization and support will likely require [Emergency Health Services] rerouting to another hospital," said Jennifer Lewandowski, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia Health, in a statement.

Lewandowski said the health authority's goal is to return the Middleton emergency department to daily 24-hour service.

"A number of things have happened within the province already to make sure that we're increasing the support of ambulances within the province," said Colin Stevenson, chief of system integration with the Department of Health and Wellness.

Recent investments 

Stevenson said that includes the purchase of a new LifeFlight aircraft for non-critical transport and the introduction of the emergency medical responder role to support pandemics. Tuition subsidies and an expansion of areas where paramedic training is offered announced last year should also help the system, he said.

"There's a lot of interest and commitment to actually improving care from pre-hospital care through to coming into an emergency department and it's starting to actually have an impact," he said.

Emergency Health Services (EHS), which holds the contract for ambulances in the province, said it could not provide details about the call on Feb 15.

"In an incident involving multiple patients, resources are allocated to each patient as their condition requires. These assignments are dynamic as the condition of the patients can change at any time. Calls are triaged based on emergency level and we continue to monitor them to ensure the right care is provided," said Charbel Daniel, the executive director of provincial operations with EHS operations, in a statement.

Annapolis MLA Carman Kerr said the lack of emergency care in the area is unfair to paramedics and volunteer firefighters.

"I don't want it to become politicized. I just wanted to get fixed," he said.

Community meeting 

Kerr attended a community meeting with volunteer firefighters on the issue at the Annapolis Royal Fire Hall on Tuesday night.

During the meeting, Chief David McCormack with the Bear River Fire Department shared an experience about how he and his team had to wait more than four hours with a woman who had a broken femur and a broken hip before an ambulance showed up.

"When we arrived, we placed her on a backboard, got her as comfortable as we could and had to listen to that lady for four and a half hours scream in pain why there was no ambulance in this end of the province," McCormack said. "That's one call."

Andrew Cranton, chief of the Annapolis Royal Volunteer Fire Department, broke down in tears. He estimated if volunteer firefighters were on the payroll in Annapolis County, they would cost around $50 million a year.

"The trauma that we see is no different than what anybody else sees, except we are front-line firefighters. We are front line, first response. Everybody runs away. We run in," he said. "Who's going to run in and save us before it's too late? ... Please hear my voice. You have to. You have to stop this. You have to fix this."

In the meantime, Alex Cranton said change is needed quickly.

"It's taking a great toll on people and it's unacceptable," he said.

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