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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Posing with their new Waco aircraft in 1936 are pilot Charlie Skinner, George Speers, Mrs. Skinner, and Norman Rouse

Photo from Ron McEachern Column
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Column 24 February/March 2010

Early Airplane Ambulances

The first air ambulance service in Saskatchewan was launched May 30, 1936 by George Speers, owner of Speers Funeral Home in Regina. Speers was a well-established firm that had been providing ground ambulance service to Regina and district since 1907, so it was a logical next step to purchase an aircraft. Their new $15,000 Waco airplane was equipped with a stretcher and had space for three passengers plus the pilot.

Speers Airplane Ambulance Service was greatly appreciated by the residents of southern Saskatchewan. Roads at that time were either poor or non-existent, especially in winter, and early vehicles were ill equipped for navigating muddy or snowed-in roads. The ability to transport emergency patients to Regina by aircraft undoubtedly saved lives. Speers also delivered blood to rural hospitals for the Red Cross. Sometimes they were called upon to fly to a town, pick up the local doctor, then fly to an outlying farm where the doctor would diagnose a patient and prescribe treatment, then fly the doctor back to his home town.

Telephone service was not yet widespread so communication was by telegraph from the nearest railway station. A copy of a March 2, 1940 Canadian Pacific Telegraph from Kayville, Saskatchewan to Speers Ambulance Service reads "SEND AMBULANCE PLANE ARRIVE TWO PM FOUR HALF NORTH ONE AND HALF MILES WEST KAYVILLE SMOKE SIGNAL." The telegraph sender would then hope the aircraft would be available and that flying conditions would be suitable.

Speers advertised 'Canada's first air ambulance' however this claim turns out not to be accurate. Ernie Starr, owner of Starr's Ambulance Service in Calgary had inaugurated Alberta's first airplane ambulance there years earlier in 1933. Starr's had converted an old Stinson plane into an ambulance machine, however the venture was given up in 1937 because of the great cost involved.

In 1946 Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas and his CCF Government began a publicly funded air ambulance service in competition to Speers, who had by then been providing airplane ambulance service for 10 years.

Do you know in which year airplane ambulances first began providing service in your province? Was it earlier than Ernie Starr's airplane ambulance in 1933? If you have information, please send me an e-mail.

Copyright 2010 Peter Adsten