Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia to invest millions in non-emergency patient transfer vehicles, staff

Nova Scotia will be adding non-emergency vehicles and staff for patient transfers in the hope of freeing up ambulances and reducing response times.

Government hopes it will free up ambulances for emergencies and improve response times

Two ambulances line up in Halifax on March 13, 2018. The government has announced it will spend millions to buy new ambulances and patient transfer vehicles. Additional drivers will also be hired as part of the funding. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The Nova Scotia government is adding more staff and more vehicles to the province's non-emergency patient transfer service. 

It's part of an effort to improve ambulance response times and clear ambulance backlogs at the province's hospitals. 

"We're very hopeful that it will be one of the levers, yes, that will improve paramedic response times," Health Minister Michelle Thompson said Thursday. 

Health Minister Michelle Thompson, seen here at a COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 14, 2021, said she hopes the spending announced Thursday will improve ambulance response time. (Communications Nova Scotia)

The government is adding $3.1 million to the service's annual budget, hiring 28 new drivers and buying five additional ambulances. 

The government is also spending $1.9 million to buy eight patient transfer vans to be deployed in Cape Breton, New Glasgow, Truro, Yarmouth, Amherst and Antigonish by the end of December.

The first of those vans will be deployed in Sydney this week. 

"There's not one thing that's going to fix [response times]. I wish there was," said Thompson. "But as we continue, there will be a suite of levers that we pull, and over time we will begin to see improvements in the health-care system."

'This is a start'

The widow of a Halifax man who died last year waiting for an ambulance said she's grateful something is changing. 

"This is a start," said Anne MacPhee. "You've got to start somewhere. Everybody wants things, and you're not going to get everything you want. But I'm happy to see that this government is going to make a change."

Anne MacPhee holds a portrait of her husband, Kelly MacPhee, in their Halifax home earlier this year. Kelly MacPhee died in September 2020 from a heart attack while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

MacPhee's husband suffered a heart attack in their Halifax apartment in September 2020, just three kilometres from the nearest hospital. No ambulances were available locally, so one was dispatched from outside the city.

It took 34 minutes for paramedics to reach the apartment, by which time Kelly MacPhee had died. 

Anne MacPhee said the government's announcement is the first evidence she's seen of the province taking any direct action to fix the issue. 

"I think it could be done a little differently, but if they think they can make this work, I'm happy to see it," she said. 

New drivers won't be paramedics

The new drivers set to be hired will not be trained as paramedics. 

Thompson said this will free up more paramedics to respond to emergency calls. 

One or two paramedics will still monitor patients in the back of the transfer vehicles, depending on how many patients are on board. 

Mixed reviews from ex-paramedic

Becky Anthony, a former paramedic, said the changes can improve some areas of the health system. 

"We may not have our 80-something-year-old people waiting to go back to either their nursing home or their actual home ... We may not have them waiting on a hallway in a stretcher for two days at a time like we have right now," said the Sydney woman.

Anthony said the real challenge is an overall shortage of paramedics, which still leaves 911 emergency response strained. 

"We need more casual paramedics in the system, we need more full-time paramedics in the system to make it work," she said, adding that paramedics who are no longer able to work in high-stress emergency situations, including those who have PTSD, should be hired for driving roles.

Ultimately, Anthony said more long-term care spots are needed to help clear overcrowding in hospital wards. 

"We don't have the long-term and respite care to take them out of the hospital system and put them into other health-care agencies so we can empty out our emergency rooms and have patients admitted where they're supposed to be," she said. 



Jack Julian


Jack Julian joined CBC Nova Scotia as an arts reporter in 1997. His news career began on the morning of Sept. 3, 1998 following the crash of Swissair 111. He is now a data journalist in Halifax, and you can reach him at (902) 456-9180, by email at or follow him on Twitter @jackjulian