Ambulance NB denies exemptions used for distance travelled to emergency calls

Ambulance New Brunswick disputes criticism from Kris Austin, leader of the People's Alliance Party, who claims the ambulance service is using so-called "exemptions" to fudge its response time statistics.

Operations manager says every call that does not meet target time is reviewed

Jean-Pierre Savoie, operations manager for Ambulance New Brunswick, says target times are met 90 per cent of the time. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

Ambulance New Brunswick is defending itself against criticism from Kris Austin, leader of the People's Alliance Party, who claims the ambulance service is using so-called "exemptions" to fudge its response time statistics.

The emergency service has an agreement in its contract with the Department of Health to meet a maximum response time of nine minutes or less for urban areas and 20 minutes or less for rural areas, 90 per cent of the time.

But Austin said he obtained an internal document suggesting those figures could be distorted because of an exemption in the ambulance service's policy that allows it to eliminate some delayed responses from its reporting.

On Wednesday, Jean Pierre Savoie, director of operations for Ambulance New Brunswick, said those exemptions are rarely ever used, and only for very specific reasons.  

"I can report the number of times we don't meet our response time is rare, and it's usually beyond our control."

When an ambulance is dispatched in the province, the time is recorded. When paramedics arrive on scene, they hit an "on scene" button, which registers their time of arrival.

Savoie said any time a response time is not met, the circumstances are reviewed. 

"It's a performance-based contract so we need to meet a certain response time standard," said Savoie. 

Figures questioned

The internal operations document obtained by Austin lists eight reasons an ambulance might be late and suggests that a delayed response approved under one of those conditions could be eliminated from the service's reporting.

Savoie said the service meets and exceeds the targets. 

"I can tell you the number of rural exemptions is less than two per cent." 

The figures show that out of 26,000 emergency calls in rural areas last year, there were 293 exemptions.

But Savoie said none of those exemptions were for the distance travelled.

Distance travelled is not used as an excuse when the ambulance service misses a target time for a call, according to Ambulance New Brunswick, which has not yet figured out why the response to a Chipman campground call took 40 minutes. (CBC)

"Every time we have a delay in response, we request from the paramedics the reason they're late, so sometimes they will say because of distance. But we never apply to the Department of Health for exemptions because of distance."

Exemptions are granted for things such as adverse weather and road closures.

But Gregory McConaghy, the paramedic's union president, said the distance problem is an issue. He said ambulances in rural areas are often pulled away to help cover busier urban areas.

Slow response to campground call

"For example Keswick, or Harvey …it's leaving these communities uncovered. And I can tell you many communities are left uncovered on a daily basis."

Savoie said vehicles are moved about in rural areas to help meet the 20-minute response time. 

"It's working really well and we're meeting it 90 per cent provincially."

Ambulance New Brunswick said it doesn't yet know the reason for the delayed response to a 911 call to Chipman Waterfront Campground after the person who made the call said it took 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. 

With files from Catherine Harrop