Posted on Wednesday, February 13, 2019 at 12:19 p.m.
Enjoy life says ambulance chief
After a lifetime career in the ambulance service, Michel Chrétien is more than satisfied with everything he’s done as he looks forward to new challenges when he retires.
“Definitely want to be doing something,” Chrétien said, as he sits back in his chair and smiles. “Not sure what yet. I know I’m just going to do it for fun and good times.”
A little collection of toy ambulances in various scales of size, along with a couple fire trucks, occupy two small shelves in Chrétien’s office at the Plantagenet headquarters for the Prescott-Russell Emergency Service. Other shelves are home to golfing trophies, including one very large trophy in pewter of a golfer in old-style clothing, frozen in the act of driving a golf ball. It’s a memento of a hole-in-one for Chrétien on one of his golfing trips.
Along the walls are framed certificates of some of the honours that the 54-year-old director of emergency services for Prescott and Russell counties has received over the years, including recognition for lifetime achievement from then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and also the Ontario Association of Paramedics Chiefs President’s Award for 30 years of exemplary service.
“That’s the thing I’m most proud of,” Chrétien said. “It recognizes your doing other things for your community.”
Looking back over the years, Chrétien has no regrets about a lifetime spent in the ambulance service. Growing up in Rockland, he doesn’t recall imagining anything else he wanted to do.
“I started working at a dollar and a half an hour,” he said, with a grin. “Now I’m the director.”
His career in the ambulance service began when he was still in high school. At 15, he learned CPR and first aid from Bernard Thivierge, the owner/operator of the Rockland Ambulance Service. Later he began going on ride-alongs with Thivierge or one of the other drivers. In 1981 he became a part-time paramedic, available for on-call shifts as needed.
This was back in the days when almost all of Ontario’s ambulance services were private sector operations. Chrétien rode in the back of the vehicle because he still didn’t have a driver’s licence at the time.
“But I had a pager,” he said, grinning. “And they actually paged me at high school sometimes. I was very popular then. It was cool. I was doing ambulance calls and everyone would ask me later what happened.”
The Summer of ’82, and Grade 13 classes soon to begin, Thivierge told Chrétien that a full-time position would be available soon with the Rockland service and it was his if he wanted it. The problem was that Chrétien wasn’t certified, but Thivierge called in a couple of favours with people he knew at Algonquin College and got Chrétien registered for the college’s one-year paramedic training program. By May 1983, Chrétien was a fully-certified and employed paramedic, doing full-time shifts and also available for occasional on-call duty.
“I’d work 20 or 21 days in a row, 24 hours a day,” he said. “Then solely five 12-hour days. Then back to 21 days at 24 hours. I was on call, mind, and it wasn’t too bad.”
Chrétien had a very personal reason for his early dedication as a youth to being a paramedic and part of the ambulance service. “My dad was ill,” he said, “and I was concerned, and I wanted to know how I could help him when he needed me.”
Over the years, Chrétien rose up through the ranks, gaining more experience and more responsibility, even as the Rockland Ambulance Service itself was expanding. Originally the single ambulance the service had would answer pickup and transfer calls all over the Town of Rockland and the neighbouring villages of Bourget and Plantagenet, with some trips west into the City of Orléans.
Thivierge’s operation expanded with a regular Orléans contract. Chrétien estimated that it increased the service’s usual annual call volume of about 300 a year to at least three or four times as many, requiring a second unit to handle summons from all over Orléans and other parts of Eastern Ontario.
“A lot of what we did were hospital transfers, with the occasional emergency call,” Chrétien said. “People didn’t really call ambulances as much then as they do now.”
Chrétien took over ownership of the Rockland-Orléans Ambulance Service in 1995 after Thivierge retired. Several years later the provincial government transferred all responsibility for ambulance services to municipal and/or regional governments. By then Chrétien had been director of emergency services for the United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) for two years.
Y2K to Today
The first thing he had to deal with when he accepted his new position with the UCPR in November 1999 was to “inoculate” the dispatch system the counties had with local ambulance services against the infamous Y2K Bug. “When I came into the office that day,” Chrétien said, smiling at the memory, “I was told ‘We need your help preparing for the 2000 bug.’”
The Y2K Bug was a feared potential disaster related to all the world’s computer systems. The original programmers had failed to consider that some or all of their programs might be still in operation in the year 2000. The systems all had an automatic re-set for their internal clocks that could shut down everything because the year date would change from 1999 to 0000, rather than 2000.
The general fear was that this accidental “bug” in computer systems would result in computer shutdowns all around the world, affecting banking systems, power supply and communications, and cause worldwide chaos.
So Chrétien and his staff of one, being himself, had a rush job to figure out how to prevent the Y2K Bug from creating a 911 problem for ambulance service in Prescott-Russell.“I scrambled, working days and evenings, to prepare,” he said. “It was a case of getting everything prepared for something that all the experts said was going to happen.”
Chrétien wasn’t the only person working in a race against time to beat the Bug. Power companies, banks, governments, everyone had people revamping computer systems so they would recognize 2000 as an actual year and continue on as usual when all the clocks changed at midnight, New Year’s Eve 1999.
That fateful night, Chrétien and Jean-Pierre Pitre, then chief administrator for the counties, sat up playing cards and listening to the TV news reports from around the world. As the hours ticked by, all was quiet and bug-free in time zone after time zone.
“Around 3 a.m., we decided nothing was going to happen, and went home,” Chrétien said, smiling.
The years 2000 and 2001 saw Chrétien occupied first with setting up a 911 civic address and call system for ambulance dispatch for the counties, and then organizing a merger of all five of the private ambulance services into a region-wide ambulance service owned, operated and managed by the UCPR.
Since then, the UCPR Emergency Services branch has grown to eight units and 110 staff members, including paramedics and office support, serving communities in Prescott and Russell. Chrétien also noted that over the years, since his days with the Rockland service, being a paramedic is more than the “scoop and go” type of work, where the main purpose of ambulance attendants was to get people to a hospital as fast as possible.
“Paramedics are more qualified now,” he said. “Our staff can treat a patient at the scene, provide advanced care to help give them a better chance when they get to the hospital. We are part of the ‘circle of care’.”
Time to relax
Nowadays, Chrétien has time for rest-and-recreation occupations. One of his fondest fun memories is the day he and other members of the Nats Alumni team got to play with Montréal Canadiens Oldtimers in a charity exhibition game January 27, 2007, in Rockland. Chrétien was on the Nats defence line but admits sometimes he was too distracted at the sight of so many of his hockey idols.
“I was playing against Guy Lafleur and these other guys,” he said, grinning. “I kept on watching them and they kept on going around me. But they were also still so incredibly fast and incredibly skilled. You really understood why those guys are pros.”
Otherwise for Chrétien, most of his time away from the office is spent on the golf course.
“In between everything, it’s good wine and good food with my family and friends. Work hard. Play hard. Enoy life.”