Many Manitoba ambulance response times fail guidelines

More than half of Manitoba's rural communities failed provincial guidelines on ambulance response times last year, a CBC News I-Team investigation has found.

54% of communities didn't meet provincial benchmark last year

More than half of Manitoba's rural communities failed provincial guidelines on ambulance response times last year, a CBC News I-Team investigation has found.

About 54 per cent of rural communities failed to meet the government's response-time benchmark in 2011, meaning some of their longest response times exceeded half an hour, according to government information obtained by CBC News.

Wanetta Bjork is among those in the province who say they have been affected by such delays. On Christmas morning in 2007, Bjork delivered her own baby — alone, on her kitchen floor, with a nurse giving instructions over the phone — in the remote central Manitoba community of Hollow Water after being told an ambulance would arrive in 45 minutes.

"It was really scary and very painful," Bjork said in an interview.

Wanetta Bjork of Hollow Water, Man., said she delivered her own baby on her kitchen floor on Dec. 25, 2007, after she was told an ambulance would arrive in 45 minutes. It arrived more than four hours later, she said. (CBC)

"They told me I couldn't cut the umbilical cord … because I had no sterile anything, like, for surgery or anything like that in my house. So they told me just to tie her umbilical cord until the ambulance got there."

Bjork estimated it took almost five hours for the ambulance — which came from another community — to arrive. She still had to be taken to the hospital and was losing blood from giving birth.

"They had to give me nitrous [oxide] and blood transfusions," she said. "They said if I had waited another 20 minutes, I probably wouldn't have made it."

Despite Bjork's experience, provincial officials said the longest ambulance response time to Hollow Water in 2007 was one hour and 17 minutes. Last year, the longest response time to that community was two hours and 12 minutes, they added.

Median time about 16 minutes

Winnipeg response times

The City of Winnipeg says it takes an average of 6.63 minutes for the first firefighter unit with an on-board paramedic to respond to an emergency call.

The average response time for the first ambulance to respond is 9.80 minutes, according to city officials.

The provincial government says it has invested $30 million over the past five years to improve ambulance services across the province.

Overall, the median ambulance response time in communities outside Winnipeg was about 16 minutes in 2011, about the same as it was in 2007.

Median response times varied widely, with communities like Brandon coming in at just over six minutes.

Several communities had response times exceeding 30 minutes. For example, the Chemawawin EMS in Easterville had a median response time of 61 minutes last year. Bissett and Winnipegosis had times of 43 and 41 minutes, respectively.

What those median numbers do not show, however, is that the longest response times in rural Manitoba are getting longer.

The province's guidelines state that the 90th percentile response time must be 30 minutes or less.

In 2007, in 38 per cent of communities, the longest response time was more than 30 minutes. That percentage went up to 54 per cent in 2011.

"Yes, we intended for it to reduce response times, but we had no idea the volumes were going to increase the way they did," said Brenda Gregory, Manitoba's director of emergency medical services.

Gregory said officials could not have predicted that spike in the number of ambulance calls. Furthermore, she said, current priorities have shifted towards training paramedics.

"Response time is something that, of course, we want to ensure is appropriate," she said. "But it's not the big factor that it kind of used to be."

Bjork said paramedics with better training would be useless if they couldn't get there in time to help.

The province says it is planning to conduct a review of emergency medical services. The scope of the review is being finalized and should begin soon, according to officials.