The campaign to improve the road surface of Highway 37 South between Kitimat and Terrace is receiving support from an unlikely source.
Long a subject of discussion among residents of the communities, the move to lobby provincial government for improvements gained traction late last month when officials from the B.C. Emergency Services Commission, which operates the provincial ambulance service, met with the North West Regional Hospital District board as part of a tour of the area.
Kitimat mayor Phil Germuth, who sits on the hospital district board and who is also the chair of the Kitimat-Stikine Regional District, said comments from Barb Fitzsimmons, the emergency services commission’s chief operating officer, about the discomfort ambulance patients undergo on bumpy roads will help spur the road improvement campaign.
“She used the phrase ‘cruel and unusual punishment’,” said Germuth of the discussion at the Nov. 24 regional hospital district meeting.
“So what we’re going to be doing is writing them a letter seeking their support which we can take to the [transportation] ministry about these poor conditions,” he said.
“When you talk to people from here about the drive to Vancouver, they say without question the worst stretch is between Kitimat and Terrace.”
Contacted by the Northern Sentinel following the Nov. 24 meeting, Fitzsimmons said she had made comments generally about the long distances ambulance patients have to travel along northwestern roads and highways.
“But I can’t remember if I said anything specifically about the road,” she said of Highway 37 South on which she and the other emergency services commision travelled to visit its Kitimat ambulance station.
Fitzsimmons said because ambulance bodies are essentially placed on a truck chassis, patients generally may not have the best experience either during an emergency trip or when being transported between facilities, whether that be in rural or northern areas, or in urban areas.
She acknowledged she used the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” in that context.
Fitzsimmons said her group visited 10 ambulance stations throughout the region as well as meeting with northwestern B.C. government officials, travelling a lot of miles on northwestern B.C. highways.
Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 873 president Cameron Eby said Kitimat and Terrace paramedics represented by the union report that driving conditions between Kitimat and Terrace are deteriorating.
“The varied elevations of the highway mean there are unpredictable changes between rain, snow and black ice. The stretch of highway is also known for large animals (deer and moose) on the roadway,” said Eby, who began his career in Terrace.
“Pooling of water also creates sections where hydroplaning is a significant risk. When all of this is combined with the poor condition road surface, it makes for a dangerous drive.
“Because of the significant industrial traffic, the road surface has been getting worse. Along with the safety concerns, the uneven road results in a very bumpy ride for patients. In cases where the patient is suffering pain, the trip can be very unpleasant,” said Eby.
Ted Ramsey, who represents Thornhill on the regional district as well as sitting on the regional hospital district board, said surface improvements to Highway 37 South are long overdue.
“That road is getting worse. With the large amount of industrial traffic creating those grooves you can get stuck in them and the next thing you know, you’re hydroplaning,” he said.
“I just know I wouldn’t want to be a patient in the back of an ambulance myself.”
Germuth did acknowledge that the transportation ministry has made improvements lately, including better access to and from the highway from the Kitamaat Village road and the Cable Car subdivision.
“They’ve also been filling potholes, but that’s not keeping up with the conditions. What’s needed is beyond that,” said Germuth who added the district has benefited from a good working relationship with area transportation ministry officials.