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

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Ray's Ambulance Service, Saskatoon & Prince Albert SK, 1969

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Column 37 June/July 2012

Why Wait for the Ambulance?

In 1967 I began working at Ray's Ambulance Service in Saskatoon. The public's mindset (rightly or wrongly) was that medical treatment for injured persons began at the door to the hospital. Waiting for an ambulance to arrive, many thought, would only delay the start of medical treatment and this attitude resulted in injured persons being sped to the closest emergency department by any means possible. Unconscious patients however, were usually left as they were found until one of our ambulances, or our competitor, Associated's, ambulance arrived.

Rural calls in particular often ended in a "patient long gone" by the time we arrived. For the bystanders at a vehicle collision out on the highway, minutes seemed like hours as they waited; first for someone to drive to the nearest town or farm in search of a telephone with which to make a long distance call to summon the RCMP and the ambulance, and then another seemingly long wait for the ambulance to arrive.

Frequently some "good Samaritan" tired of waiting, would load the injured into a car and take off for the city. This was a common occurence not only in Saskatchewan but througout Canada. A 1963 survey by Manitoba RCMP detachments found that only 30 percent of a total of 1,211 highway accident victims who required transportation to hospital that year were transported by ambulance. And sometimes it was the RCMP who would "load and go". Responding to a rural call we'd sometimes be flagged down by an approaching RCMP officer who would first assist us in transferring the injured from his cruiser to our ambulance and who would then instruct us to follow him to the hospital. (These police escorts were dangerous - the Mounties drove at extreme speeds and once we arrived in the city there was the added danger of traffic making way for the police vehicle but then swinging back into our lane not realizing they were hearing a second siren - ours).

In fairness, it sometimes was entirely appropriate for injured persons to be transported to hospital in a vehicle other than an ambulance. For example: when no ambulance was available or when there would be an unacceptably long time for an ambulance to arrive (especially in winter); in cases when our dispatcher received revised directions but was unable to relay them to us because we were beyond the 20-mile limit of the base station radio tower; if during a snow storm our ambulance hit the ditch or got stuck. The question remains: How often would an injured person have had a better outcome if the public and the police had waited for the ambulance to arrive? That we will never know.

Copyright 2012 Peter Adsten