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EMS Classics is a feature column I write for Canadian Paramedicine.

It is my attempt at giving the younger generation who work in EMS today, a snapshot into the history of ambulance service.

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A First Aid station at a British American service station in rural Manitoba, 1949

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Column 28 December 2010/January 2011

First Aid on the Highways

When a motor vehicle collision occurred along a rural stretch of highway in the 1930s, someone had to drive to neighboring farmyards or to the closest town, in search of a telephone. Then, often there was a long wait for an ambulance to arrive as vehicles were still fairly primitive and highways were dusty, single lane gravel surface.

To address the long delays in getting help to the injured the Canadian Red Cross Society in 1933 established twenty-two Highway First Aid Posts along busy Highway Number 2 between Toronto and Montreal. This demonstration project was established in co-operation with the St. John Ambulance Association and the Ontario Motor League. The Posts were situated at approximately 10 mile intervals, most frequently at garages and service stations. Volunteers who lived or worked nearby were given first aid training.

During the first two years of the pilot project First Aiders cared for 317 people injured in vehicle collisions. It was determined the Highway First Aid Post project had saved a number of lives, had reduced the suffering of many and had provided a valuable service to the motoring public. Soon, more Posts were established - by 1941 there were 86 Posts positioned along some of Canada's busiest highways. By 1952 there were 227 posts across Canada.

The following public notice promoted Highway First Aid Stations to Manitoba residents in 1949: Should you require first aid while on the highways, you will find first aid boxes located at strategic points throughout the province. These boxes are marked by highway signs one mile from them, and at the boxes. They contain...stretchers, blankets and first aid materials such as iodine, splints, bandages, gauze. etc. Maintenance of these boxes is a joint project of the Manitoba Government, The Canadian Red Cross, The St. John Ambulance Society and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (Note, there is no mention of trained first aiders-the implication being you can just help yourself. The boxes were not locked.)

Highway First Aid Posts served an important function in Canada for many years, but as vehicles, highways and communication systems improved they were gradually discontinued. By 1970, only Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick had Red Cross Highway First Aid Posts. They were an early version of a First Responder program.

Copyright 2010 Peter Adsten