OPPOSITION spokesperson on health, Dr Kenneth Baugh, says the state of the current emergency response services cast doubt on the country's ability to act swiftly in the event of a major accident or disaster.
"I believe the service is deficient, I don't believe we have specially trained people who can really function efficiently at an accident site, and I agree that there should be a dedicated service and people trained for that activity where they do nothing else but respond to emergencies whether from the hospitals or a special location where emergency vehicles are kept," Dr Baugh told the Jamaica Observer on Sunday.
He was speaking on the heels of a call made by convenor of the National Road Safety Council, Dr Lucien Jones, for the country to do more in terms of the training of paramedics and the general public in how to manage crash victims. Dr Jones has also pointed to the need for the state to have in place a dedicated fleet of emergency response vehicles, emergency response personnel, as well as a dedicated emergency telephone line for accessing help in the case of road crashes.
Sunday, Dr Baugh said the call made by Dr Jones had been answered long ago by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government of the 1980s, but had been allowed to lapse by the People's National Party based on policy directions.
"In the 1980s, I was the minister of health, and when I took over we found that there were no ambulances. The health service had been devoid of ambulances, except for some Cortina station wagons, so there was no emergency response. So we developed a policy that there must be an emergency medical service with teams that are specially trained as emergency medical technicians who would know what to do when they went to an accident site in terms of how to handle patients and how to preserve life; because a lot of patients die being transported from the site to the hospital," Dr Baugh said.
With just under a hundred ambulances ordered, at different times, the fleet was built and personnel trained, that effort, however, had
"We had a fleet, but the difficulties that developed was that there were no utility vehicles for the hospitals, so the ambulances doubled up as utility vehicles... and so they were used, for example, to carry staff," Dr Baugh said.
"A proposal was then made in our time and tested under the People's National Party Government in the 90s to put ambulances at the fire stations under the care of a special emergency team so that when there was an emergency there would be a telephone number to call and the team would respond. So the effort was there, but I don't think it was implemented fully; there were some experimental areas and I believe it didn't work because of economic constraints," he said further.
While admitting that he did not have the exact numbers for the current fleet, Baugh said it was still not acceptable.
"We developed the policy, but it wasn't sustained. I don't think, over the years since that time, we have purchased enough ambulances to keep the fleet well supplied and the accompanying equipment as well. I know there is a deficiency, can't speak to the numbers, there has been intermittent efforts to purchase ambulances, but not in sufficient quantities," he told the Observer.
"I know that this is because of economic constraints, and I have proposed in the House, in times past, that some of the funds put for capital expenditure should be dedicated to ambulances. I believe we should look again at the location of those emergency vehicles so they can respond in concert with the fire stations if there is a motor vehicle accident or a plane crash or an earthquake.
I do not believe we have a good response team, I don't think persons have been educated to know who to call or what to do in emergencies,"
In the meantime, he said the JLP, after it again took over the reins of Government in 2007, had been moving along that path before it was ousted in 2011.
"If we became Government again we will put back the emergency medical service that we designed then; it was very efficient. We will certainly put it back in place and ensure that Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) are trained to man them. ...I don't think sufficient drills and training are taking place so we are unprepared," he added.
Meanwhile, numerous attempts to get a comment from Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson were unsuccessful.
Some two years ago, an unofficial survey of the ambulances assigned to public hospitals showed that some 50 per cent of the units were defective.
Then Health Minister Rudyard 'Ruddy' Spencer admitted to a chronic shortage, due mainly to mechanical challenges. While the ministry did not give any data on the total figure then, an unofficial count put the fleet at 41.