Nfld. & Labrador

White-knuckle ride: Ambulance owner slams highway snowclearing efforts

On Christmas Day, a paramedic driving an ambulance from Whitbourne worried a patient might not make it to the Janeway children's hospital in St. John's.

'Not good enough,' says Wade Smith after snowy Christmas Day drive

Incident on Christmas Day has Wade Smith calling for the province to do a better job 1:59

At 8:30 p.m. on Christmas Day, while many enjoyed the warmth of family, friends and holiday cheer, a paramedic driving an ambulance from Whitbourne worried a patient might not make it to the Janeway children's hospital in St. John's.

With snow coming down, the Trans-Canada Highway into the city was far from ideal.  

"Terrible. Slippery. Blinding snow," Smith's Ambulance Services owner Wade Smith told CBC. "Cars off the road everywhere. It was just making it very difficult to get to town."

An ambulance driver described the highway driving conditions on Dec. 25 as "Terrible. Slippery. Blinding snow. Cars off the road everywhere." (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Earlier this year, the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government cut 24/7 highway snow clearing in its budget, a move it says will save $1.9 million a year. 

Smith wasn't behind the wheel Dec. 25, but his employees let him know the troubles they had trying to transport the patient. 

In situations like this, Smith said, ambulance staff can call a few emergency numbers to get snow clearing to get to patients, or help get people to the health care services needed. 

But that didn't happen on Christmas Day, he said. 

"We were informed that trucks would probably come off around 10:30 at night, but apparently the trucks came off early that day — around 8:30 p.m. — and the closest truck to us was actually in Clarke's Beach [about 33 kilometres away]. There was nothing for the highway."

Wade Smith: "I think if it's not corrected and something is not done people could very well be seriously injured or die because if we can't get to them because of a snow clearing operation I don't think that's good enough." (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

A longtime paramedic, Smith has owned and operated Smith's Ambulance Services for more than two decades, with his emergency vehicles frequently driving the highway to St. John's. What happened last week is very disheartening, he said. 

"I know that we're under [financial] restraint but I think when it's actually snowing out and you got windy, stormy conditions I think those trucks should be on 24/7," he said. 

"We have all kinds of equipment on these ambulances and can do just about anything in the field but if we can't get there it's absolutely no good to us or to a patient."

Wade Smith:" We have all kinds of equipment on these ambulances and can do just about anything in the field but if we can't get there. It's absolutely no good to us or to a patient." (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Smith has tried to contact his MHA, Sherry Gambin-Walsh, and has made calls to the Department of Transportation and Works, as well as to Health Minister John Haggie.

"I know it's a holiday a season but people still get sick," he said.

"When you are dealing with the safety of the public I think that has to be paramount above anything else. I don't think money should ever come into play when it's in regard to the safety of the public and their health. But that's what's happening here."

Department says highway plowed 

The province's transportation department responded on Thursday, explaining that the phone number Smith called to reach the provincial dispatch centre was in fact a wrong number.

"The delay and frustration was related to this miscommunication as opposed to 24 hour snow clearing," the statement read. "Contact information has been distributed again today to all emergency responders via Health and Community Services."

The provincial government has reduced staffing at highway depots in 13 designated hours between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. in an effort to cut costs. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Transportation and Works Minister Al Hawkins told CBC's On The Go Thursday that he couldn't comment on the state of the roads that evening, but that his department is looking into it.

However, he said there's no reason that the TCH between Whitbourne and St. John's shouldn't have been cleared, as plow operators were still on shift. He also said even if it was after 10:30 p.m., there is still a 24-hour supervisor who monitors weather conditions who would have called someone in.

Hawkins said the emergency numbers have not changed recently, so he doesn't understand why the paramedics were unable to get someone on the line.

Despite that, the department has once again distributed the numbers to ensure everyone is up to date.

Transportation and Works Minister Al Hawkins says the same level of snowclearing service exists as it did last year, despite the fact that some depots are not staffed during the overnight hours. (CBC)

While he is confident in the ability of the province to keep highways clear, Hawkins said drivers also have to be aware of the volatile nature of weather in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"One thing we have to realize is that conditions sometimes change very, very quickly on our highways," he said.

"No matter the number of plows and operators you have out there, there are going to be times when road conditions are not ideal."

About the Author

Jeremy Eaton is a reporter and videojournalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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