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Ambulances too long on the road in N.L.: Teamsters

Hubert Dawe of the Teamsters Union, Local 855, pictured outside his office on Mews Place in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador,  on Tuesday morning.
Hubert Dawe of the Teamsters Union, Local 855, pictured outside his office on Mews Place in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, on Tuesday morning. - Joe Gibbons

Newfoundland and Labrador should set a standard that sees ambulances replaced far earlier than the current maximum of 500,000 kilometres or 10 years, says a former paramedic now working with Teamsters Local 855.

“I think the five-year standard works … or 250,000 kilometres for the vehicles that are doing regular long hauls. Get them off the road and make sure we are, indeed, putting out the safest product to protect the patients and paramedics who are using these vehicles every day,” said Hubert Dawe, the business manager for the local’s health division.

Dawe said he spent 30 years in the public and private ambulance sector, mostly in this province, before he joined the Teamsters’ staff.

Local 855 represents about 250 paramedics in the private ambulance system in this province, which has a mish-mash of public, private and not-for-profit ambulances. Those ambulances operated by the regional health authorities are bought new and generally replaced at 250,000 kilometres.

The union maintains that no private ambulance operator — the privates have contracts with government to provide ambulances in many areas of the province — should be buying used vehicles that have reached their caps in other provinces.

Dawe said if the vehicles were being turned around with lower mileage, the maintenance costs would be lower as well.

A Telegram story Tuesday revealed that Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the most liberal thresholds in the country with regard to the lifespan of ambulances.

The Regional Municipality of York, for instance, requires ambulances to be replaced every five years or 250,000 kms. The standard in the rest of Atlantic Canada is four-to five years and out of service.

A Telegram examination of the odometer readings in 2018 — the last full year of inspections by Service NL — revealed some 32 ambulances exceeded 400,000 kilometres on the odometer.

An additional 63 had between 300,000 and 400,000 kilometres on the odometer.

Roughly 150 in total exceeded 200,000 kilometres. 

All of the vehicles passed inspection.

Health Minister John Haggie told The Telegram Monday that as long as the ambulances all pass Service NL annual inspections, he’s comfortable with their age and odometers.

“There is a difference in quality of ambulances when you get into the private industry for sure in maintenance,” Dawe said.

“The vehicles are out there operating in every condition 365 days a year travelling a lot at high speed which increases wear and tear on your engines and the overall mechanical function of your vehicle. The other provinces are right. It’s just not a reasonable expectation for that vehicle to give you 10 years of reliable service. And they don’t. As the vehicles get older, they just continue to cost more to maintain and spend more time actually being maintained than they actually do on the road to my experience.”

This summer, Dawe said the union is hearing from its members that air conditioning units on the ambulances have been a problem — they are supposed to maintain a set temperature — and some paramedics are refusing to drive the vehicles. He said one in Conception Bay North was taken off service for a day due to the problem.

“Private is a business. They are in it to make money they are going to push it for whatever they can to make the most profit at the end of the day. But we have changed the standards of care for our patients. It doesn't matter if it's public or private, you get the same level of care.

It is about time the rest of standards were brought on to par,” he said.

As for the ambulance system reform underway in the province, Dawe said the Teamsters haven’t got to the table with government.

“We reached out to the (Health) minister's office several times. We have yet to sit down.

We’ve been promised a couple of meetings to date and nothing has come out of it,” Dawe said.

“These contracts for a long time have been for the convenience of both the government and the private operators.  I don’t think they want any input from the employees.”

barbara.sweet@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @BarbSweetTweets


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