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N.S. volunteer firefighters upset by long waits for paramedics at crash scenes

HALIFAX — Volunteer firefighters say they’re feeling “helpless” as they endure long waits for paramedics to arrive at health emergencies in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

Dwayne Barteaux — who has been volunteering in the Annapolis Royal Fire Department for 35 years — says he waited at the scene of a highway car crash with four seriously injured people for more than one hour last week at a location about 150 kilometres north of Yarmouth.

According to an RCMP news release about the crash, an 11-year-old had to be airlifted to Halifax, while two other passengers — a four-year-old and a nine-year-old — were transported to hospital by ambulance from Litchfield, N.S. The 37-year-old driver was also taken to hospital.

In an interview Tuesday, Barteaux said he and other volunteer firefighters — who are often the first responders to the scene of an emergency — are having to assist patients with very serious injuries for prolonged periods with limited training and equipment, adding that it’s creating high levels of stress and, for some, sleepless nights. 

“At one time, the (ambulance) response would have been … minutes,” said the 57-year-old firefighter.

“It’s putting volunteers in a terrible position where we’re looking after critically injured patients for extended periods of time and we have patients needing more advanced care than we’re capable of giving them,” Barteaux said. Firefighters, he added, aren’t permitted to transport patients to emergency rooms.

Alex Cranton, the deputy fire chief in the town of Annapolis Royal, said in an interview that a key part of the problem is that the Annapolis Community Health Centre no longer has an emergency room that can treat people with serious injuries. Other ERs in the area are often closed, he added.

As a consequence, Cranton said, ambulances based in his area are often assigned to drive longer distances to emergency departments in Yarmouth or Kentville, creating response delays.

Cranton, 31, said a patient who was recently being attended to by one of his volunteer teams died of a heart attack in Annapolis Royal after waiting about one hour for an ambulance.

“It’s putting volunteer firefighters in positions they didn’t really sign up for,” he said. “You could have somebody passing away in your hands and you have no control over that, and you have no trained assistance coming your way for up to two hours.”

Jennifer Lewandowski, a spokeswoman for Nova Scotia Health, said some smaller emergency departments have to be closed at times because of a lack of doctors and other health-care professionals. “In other cases, we have moved staff from some smaller emergency departments to support the operation of larger regional emergency departments, resulting in planned closures,” she added.

Charbel Daniel, director of provincial operations with Emergency Health Services, said her organization is grateful for the work of the volunteers and “understands their concerns.”

Daniel said in an email that there are efforts underway throughout the health system to reduce the time paramedics devote to low-risk patients. Those efforts include having a doctor and nurse at the EHS communications centre to consult with paramedics, and setting up “fully equipped, single response EHS” units for calls to less severe cases.

Colin Stevenson, a vice-president at the provincial Health Department, said in an interview Tuesday there is “no one solution” to the problem. In response, he said, the province trained a new class of emergency medical responders who will work alongside more highly trained paramedics. There are also retention and recruitment efforts underway to help reduce the shortfall in paramedics, he added.

However, Carman Kerr, the Liberal member of the legislature for Annapolis, said in a release that the firefighters’ concerns are “a bleak reminder of the lack of emergency services in the region.”

“Without an emergency room open and a scarcity of ambulances in our communities, residents in Annapolis live in fear that our health-care system cannot support them,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2024.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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