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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Photo: Cochrane ON Library Column

A railroad speeder in Cochrane, Ontario in 1940 transports patients to hospital in a neighbouring town.

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Column 49 October/November 2014

A Variety of Providers

Ambulance service during the past century was provided by a wide variety of organizations and individuals. In many communities the local undertaker provided the earliest ambulance service; practically it made sense, he already had a stretcher, a suitable long vehicle and was available during quiet times between funerals. Then gradually, one by one, funeral homes discontinued providing ambulance service, replaced by a variety of providers. Often it was the hospital or the volunteer fire department that took over the responsibility of providing ambulance service.

In some communities volunteer ambulance squads were formed, often assisted by a Lions, Kinsmen or Kiwanis service club in raising funds for the purchase of the ambulance and equipment. In British Columbia the service clubs themselves sometimes operated the ambulance service. In Russell, Manitoba the Royal Canadian Legion operated the ambulance. In New Brunswick, St. John Ambulance brigades served many communities.

In some communities the municipal government assumed responsibility for ambulance service. They usually gave the job to the fire department but in cities such as Vancouver, Winnipeg, Brampton, Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal the task was assigned to the City Police.

There also was an interesting mix of private enterprise in the ambulance 'business'. Some ambulance services, such as Greystone in Saskatoon, were operated in conjunction with a taxi company. In Grande Prairie, Alberta in 1947, Harold Peebles operated a snow plane taxi & ambulance. Dr. Noel Murphy of Bonne Bay, Newfoundland operated a Bombardier snowmobile ambulance during the winter months during the 1950s. In Yellowknife, North-West Territories during the 1940s to 1960s, Wally (Buryin') Smith had a tow truck business and also operated a taxi/ambulance/hearse depending on the passenger's condition.

Towing companies during the 1960s operated two ambulance services in Winnipeg, Riverview and United. In some communities the ambulance service was operated as an adjunct to a service station business; in 1936 Ed's Ambulance Service and Ted's Ambulance Service operated from competing service stations located on opposite street corners in Calgary. McCannell Motors in Kamloops, British Columbia was an automotive dealer and also ran the ambulance. Bob and Lorraine Postma of La Ronge, Saskatchewan provided ambulance service in conjunction with their motel and Tony Klym of Oyen, Alberta operated an ambulance from his farm.

Large industrial firms sometimes had their own on-site ambulance and also served the local community. Ontario's Algoma Steel of Sault Ste. Marie, Atomic Energy of Chalk River and Labatt's of London are some examples, as was Canadian Arsenals in Valcartier, Quebec. In 1965 the Sherritt Gordon Mine in Lynn Lake, Manitoba operated the community's ambulance from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM and a local trucking firm provided service from 5:00 PM to 8:00 AM. And prior to the highway arriving at Cochrane, Ontario in 1940 and in Pemberton, B. C. in 1966 those communities were served using the railroad company's speeder.

There have indeed been a wide variety of ambulance service providers. Check the Rosters page of my website for a partial Canadian list.