Officials say no ambulance crisis despite shortage - Lack of emergency response units not crippling services, authorities insist
In literal life-and-death situations, where every second counts, many Jamaicans are left struggling to find state ambulances to respond to emergences in a timely manner and have to rely on private vehicles or public transportation to get critically injured persons to emergency rooms.
The picture across the island varies across parishes, and in Westmoreland, which is home to the island’s westernmost tip, there are mixed views on the State’s capacity to handle emergencies when members of the public are in distress.
While Westmoreland has four functioning ambulances assigned to the Savanna-la-Mar Hospital and one operational ambulance at the Negril Fire Station, there are mixed views between the Western Regional Health Authority (WRHA) and members of the public regarding their readiness to provide effective service.
The four ambulances at the Type B Savanna-la-Mar Hospital are among the 18 registered in the WRHA’s ambulance fleet for Westmoreland, St James, Trelawny and Hanover.
The unit assigned to the Negril Fire Station was originally assigned to the Savanna-la-Mar Fire Station, but was moved to Negril as the resort town’s ambulance is currently in need of repairs.
Errol Greene, the WRHA’s regional director, noted that a total of five ambulances were registered to the Savanna-la-Mar Hospital, but one had to be written off following an accident.
“One of the ambulances, which was a 2016 model ambulance, was written off when it was new, as it was in an accident in early 2017. It was sent to the dealers to be repaired, but repair was not recommended because it was a total wreck,” Greene explained.
FOUR WORKING UNITS
“All the other four ambulances are working. One of those is fairly new, a Mercedes model, which was acquired under the Programme for the Reduction of Maternal and Child Mortality,” Greene added, referencing a Ministry of Health and Wellness initiative launched in 2013 under a bilateral agreement with the European Union.
He found some support in the parish’s chief public health inspector, Steve Morris, who told The Gleaner that while the parish could do with more ambulances, the shortage was not crippling healthcare at this time.
“In the 1990s, each of the parish’s six Type III health centres had one vehicle assigned, but since they have merged primary and secondary care, the vehicles all went to the hospital, and they went the way of the dinosaurs. The number we have is inadequate, but I don’t think we’re at a crisis, since we have assistance from the Fire Department,” said Morris.
The Fire Department currently has only one working unit in the entire parish.
Limited professional pre-hospital assistance
Greene’s rosy picture is of little comfort in cases of emergency as the ambulances assigned to hospitals are generally used to transport patients from one medical facility to another. Emergency calls – including those from accident scenes, homes, schools – are generally left up to the fire service to handle. With just one functioning ambulance in the Westmoreland fire service, residents have found themselves having to rely on taxis in their times of greatest need, when the unavailability of experienced, professional pre-hospital assistance could cost lives.
Stacey Nembhard-Smith of Little London in the parish, told The Gleaner she had to hire a taxi to transport her stroke-affected mother, Sheila Nembhard, to the hospital in 2016 as no ambulance was available.
“When my mother started having a stroke, we ended up using a taxi to transport her to hospital. The ambulance never came, as they only had one [and] that wasn’t available. We didn’t know that until we called back after 40 minutes,” Nembhard-Smith recounted of the frightening experience.
“When the ambulance was called, they stated they were on the way, but no conversation was had about not having one at the moment, and when we called back, that was the explanation they gave us,” she added. “The taxi got there quickly, but my mother was still having strokes – two major ones and eight small ones, while waiting overnight at the hospital – though, thankfully, she eventually started walking and talking again,” Nembhard-Smith added.
The picture has not changed much since.
MORE VEHICLES NEEDED
Westmoreland’s fire chief, Rudolph Seaton, acknowledged that more vehicles are needed to provide adequate parish-wide service.
“We only have one working ambulance in the parish, and it is presently assigned to the Negril Fire Station. We should have one ambulance at the Negril Fire Station and one at the Savanna-la-Mar Fire Station, but the one stationed at Negril is currently out of action and undergoing mechanical repairs,” Seaton explained. “We had to relocate the ambulance from Savanna-la-Mar to Negril, as Negril receives a lot more calls than Savanna-la-Mar. So we only have one working ambulance for the time being, and I would say there’s a need for one more ambulance,” Seaton added.
Companies such as the Life Call Ambulance Service have been filling the emergency-response gap.
“We cover from Westmoreland up to St Ann,” Managing Director Enoch Gooden told The Gleaner. “We have 10 units, and we currently have eight in service and we have two as backup units. We are based in Negril, Lucea, Montego Bay, Runaway Bay and Ocho Rios.”
- Population: 145,628 (as at end of 2018, STATIN)
- Ambulances at hospital (for transfers between health facilities): 4
- Ambulances at fire stations (for emergency response): 1