Lack of extrication leaves drivers in a dangerous lurch
Fire departments along Highway 17 provide extrication services to free car accident victims from their vehicles, except for a short stretch of road in Head, Clara and Maria Township at the western edge of Renfrew County.
Along the 800-kilometre length of Highway 17 running from Ottawa to Sault Ste. Marie, there is only one portion where if you get into a collision and need the 'jaws of life' to be freed from your car, you're on your own, and it's right here in Renfrew County.
Thanks to the cancellation of an extrication agreement between the Township of Head, Clara and Maria, the Township of Laurentian Hills and the Town of Deep River, the 30-kilometre stretch extending from the western edge of Laurentian Hills Township and Bissett Creek, halfway to the far end of Renfrew County, no coverage exists at all for heavy extrication.
Shortly after the agreement was dissolved in the fall of 2015, questions were raised about what would happen if an accident did occur along that portion of the highway, and on Friday, Jan. 15, an answer was given.
That day, calls started going out on emergency service frequencies to respond to a single-vehicle collision near Stonecliffe. Renfrew County Paramedics and Ontario Provincial Police officers immediately responded, as did firefighters with the Laurentian Hills Fire Department. Minutes later, however, another call came out over the scanner. Dispatch, acting on orders of Laurentian Hills fire Chief Kevin Waito, ordered the firefighters to head back to their station and not respond to the accident.
"Head, Clara and Maria doesn't have a fire department," explains Waito in defence of his decision to call back his crew, "so they're not part of the mutual aid agreement. It's not really every other municipality in Renfrew County's problem to look after them."
The total lack of a fire department puts Head, Clara and Maria Township in a very exclusive club. Only six out of Ontario's 414 municipalities offer no fire suppression service to their residents.
So what happens if one of their houses catches fire?
"It burns to the ground," says Mayor Jim Gibson.
While the impact on residents for that lack of fire department is a matter for homeowners and insurance companies to sort out, the resulting lack of protection along Highway 17 is obviously more far-reaching.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation the portion of Highway 17, including the stretch in question, sees an average daily traffic count of roughly 2,800 vehicles. Peggy Lovelace, CAO/clerk-treasurer at the Township of Baldwin (population 550) West of Sudbury recently polled all the small municipalities (fewer than 1,000 residents) dotting the length of Highway 17, and other than Head, Clara and Maria, every one that she spoke to offered extrication services within its borders.
"It seems like we're being cold-hearted," says Waito of his decision to pull his department off the Jan. 15 extrication call, "but we're not. We have to look after our own before we try to look after someone else's issues. Everybody says 'well, why don't you just go and do it?' but it's not that simple."
According to Waito, sending Laurentian Hills firefighters along that stretch out of his township would leave the rest of the municipality crucially underserviced. It would also, he asserts, leave the municipality without the protection and aid of departments from other municipalities nearby.
"If we're up there doing something for Head, Clara and Maria, we can't even activate our mutual aid with the rest of the county, because we have to be in our own municipality using all our own resources before we can activate mutual aid, so it kind of leaves Laurentian Hills in a lurch."
Renfrew County mutual aid co-ordinator, Pembroke fire Chief Dan Herback, has a different interpretation of the terms and application of the county's mutual aid agreement, which doesn't apply to Head, Clara and Maria, but would apply between Laurentian Hills and its other municipal neighbours.
"The members of our mutual aid help each other out," Herback says, "no matter the circumstances. We're there to help each other."
Bottom line for Waito?
"I can't see Laurentian Hills ever leaving Laurentian Hills to do extrication," Waito says, adding that he's instructed his department "if you guys get to the end of our municipality, and you can't see it, we don't go. It's the same with a fire. There's got to be a line in the sand somewhere, and you can't change it. If you change it, it's not a line in the sand any more, and if you make an exception, where does it end?"
According to Gibson, an offer was extended to pay the Township of Laurentian Hills on a per-call basis for extrication, but the offer was declined.
As it stands, Gibson takes a matter-of-fact stance toward the possibility of future accidents within his township's borders.
"If somebody's in a motor vehicle accident and they're trapped in their vehicle," he says flatly, "then they're trapped in their vehicle, and paramedics will do what they can to keep them alive."
For Gibson, the matter comes down to the fact that Highway 17 is a provincial roadway, making extrication services along it ultimately the responsibility of the provincial government.
Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski, however, says that his office has received no communication from any municipality involved.
"I'm aware that these agreements have expired and that there is a stretch of Highway 17 that currently does not have an agreement covering extrication services," he told The Daily Observer in a telephone interview from his Queen's Park office, "and that is justifiably an issue of concern for many people, but at this time, I have not received any formal requests from the municipalities for involvement or assistance."
Luckily for the four passengers involved in the Jan. 15 accident, firefighters from the Town of Mattawa responded to the scene, despite it occurring well beyond the borders outlined in their agreement with Head, Clara and Maria Township.
Two of those patients required transportation to hospital following their extrication, and reportedly are doing well, but for Renfrew County paramedics Chief Michael Nolan, the risks of a more serious collision happening at a time when Mattawa is unable or unwilling to stretch its coverage agreement are real, and could potentially leave responding paramedics in a precarious position.
"There's a real risk that we're going to do more harm to a patient by trying to remove them from a vehicle without proper extrication equipment," he says, following up with a haunting rhetorical question about what would have to happen in the event that a patient desperately needed to be removed from a vehicle but had a limb pinned under a crumpled dashboard or other piece of vehicle that could otherwise be cut away.
For now, with Head, Clara and Maria unable to afford extrication equipment and training of its own, and unable or unwilling to come to an alternate agreement with neighbouring municipalities for coverage, it remains to be seen whether anyone will be coming to help the next time that lonely stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway is the site of a collision.