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January 20, 2011

Canadian town considering hiring private EMS service

By Greg Layson
Guelph Mercury

ONTARIO, Canada — Erin council is in the early stages of considering establishing its own ambulance service, independent of Guelph-Wellington EMS.

Council requested a private emergency services provider introduce himself and outline his company's services at a meeting Tuesday night.

Twelve years ago, rescue specialist W. M. Woodfine incorporated Tack-Two EMS and Fire Inc. It specializes in medical and fire services, fire suppression, large animal rescue and first aid. The company now has a fleet of ambulances, staffed by off-duty paramedics from various communities.

Tack-Two normally caters to private events, much the way St. John's Ambulance does. However, Woodfine on Tuesday offered his company's EMS services to work for the residents of Erin, where wait times for service calls are the worst in Wellington County.

Woodfine, based out of Belwood, had followed Erin's plight in the newspapers and said concerned Wellington County residents began raising their safety concerns with him.

"There's a real situation there, and I don't blame (them looking for options)," Woodfine said in an interview Wednesday.

"All we do is help people. And we thought we'd offer a solution."

Public data revealed last year suggested average ambulance response times in the Erin area are about nine minutes longer than the provincial standard. Ambulance wait times are so long in Erin, some local residents have strategically embellished patients' symptoms when they call 911 in attempts to spur more timely responses.

In May 2009, Guelph emergency services director Shawn Armstrong wrote a report recommending a staffed ambulance be posted in or near Erin for 12 hours each day to shorten response times. However, five months later, the idea was scrapped.

"I told them at the time, if they turned that down, I would look at different avenues to pursue," Erin Mayor Lou Maieron said in an interview Wednesday. "I'm looking for adequate service."

In December, Armstrong confirmed his 2011 budget proposal will include enough of a financial boost for "at least one more ambulance, 24 hours a day."

But Maieron said even that doesn't guarantee Erin better service.

Erin annually sends about $400,000 to the City of Guelph for service by Guelph-Wellington EMS. But many ambulance calls in Erin are handled by providers in neighbouring areas such as Halton and Peel regions and Dufferin County; none receives money from Erin for providing this service.

Maieron on Wednesday again suggested Erin send its $400,000 payment to EMS operators outside of Wellington County. And, in the meantime, it could possibly contract Tack-Two, if the company becomes licensed by the Ministry of Health.

"I never knew until last week that a private company like this existed," Maieron said. "This now opens up an avenue that I didn't even know existed."

Ministry of Health spokesperson Dave Jensen said it's not impossible for a municipality to break away from regional EMS service.

"A town would first have to be designated as a delivery agent and then certified by ministry," Jensen said.

Wellington-Halton Hills Conservative MPP Ted Arnott, who in the provincial legislature has raised the issue of Erin's slow ambulance response times, would neither support nor condemn the idea of the community breaking free from Guelph-Wellington County EMS.

"I'd certainly want to consult with all municipal officials in the riding before I express a preference on a question like that," he said. "I want to continue to work with Wellington County and Erin in working toward a solution to the concerns about ambulance service in the eastern part of the county.

Erin's new medical centre contains an empty vehicle bay designated for ambulance service. Maieron said a resident even offered to buy Erin its own ambulance. All the town needs now is staff.

That's where Tack-Two can help, Woodfine said.

"We're professional paramedics. We have the staff and the equipment," he said. "Let's work together and put a Band-Aid in there and save these people."

Arnott said the City of Guelph must play a role in the solution. He's also disappointed the province has yet to step in.

"There is a real opportunity for the province to broker a solution but it requires intervention of the Ministry of Health," Arnott said.

"I hope the ministry would take an interest, but I haven't seen any evidence of that."

Armstrong was not available for comment on Wednesday.

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