At the height of the tourist season with the music festival just around the corner, Dawson City’s ambulance attendants walked off the job this week.
On Thursday at 10 a.m., the town’s 12 volunteers turned in their radios, leaving the government scrambling to find replacements.
“I think everybody’s concerned,” said Dawson mayor John Steins on Friday.
“They’ve taken this step to withdraw their services with a heavy heart.
“If they’re willing to take this drastic step, then there really must be something to it because you don’t withdraw essential services lightly.”
The Yukon Health department sent a nurse/ambulance attendant from Whitehorse to cover the calls with a volunteer ambulance driver.
The government’s “stop-gap” measure is better than nothing, said Steins.
“I just hope nothing serious happens,” he said.
The decision by Dawson’s volunteers came just three days after Watson Lake’s volunteers turned in their radios.
The ambulance crews in both towns were burned out and frustrated by the lack of pay and attention from Yukon government officials.
“We couldn’t take anymore; we just don’t have the volunteers,” said Dawson City ambulance supervisor Margie Baikie.
With a dozen available, Dawson has more attendants than most Yukon communities.
But they all work non-health jobs and have other commitments, which makes it difficult to respond to the growing number of calls in the town.
Call volume has been doubling over the years.
“At one time the winter would be quite slow, but now it’s constant,” she said.
In 2006, Dawson crews responded to 397 calls. This year, they’ve already logged 150.
“When it hits over 100 calls, it’s not volunteer anymore,” Baikie added.
“Can you imagine carrying this radio for 365 days of the year and not being able to sign-off because you’ve got no one to sign off to?”
Baikie is asking the government to fund four full-time, year-round paid positions in the community.
She insists the attendants be Dawson City residents and be trained to the same level as Whitehorse attendants.
She’s also looking for primary-care paramedic training for at least two of the volunteer attendants.
“We are willing to compromise,” said Baikie.
“We feel a tremendous amount of remorse and regret at what we had to do, but we’re at a point where we can’t do it anymore — we’re all tired and exhausted.”
Since the signoff, Baikie has heard little from the government.
She wasn’t surprised.
The group did meet with Klondike MLA Steve Nordick on Thursday evening to voice their concerns.
Nordick told them he would raise their issues with Health Minister Brad Cathers, said Baikie.
Steins and Dawson’s town council plan to hold a special meeting at noon on Friday to discuss the situation.
Health minister surprised by walkouts
This week’s walkouts surprised Yukon Health Minister Brad Cathers.
“We certainly were not expecting that,” he said on Wednesday afternoon.
“We were not given advance notice that they were going to hand in their radios.”
In fact, Cathers was under the impression things were going well and volunteers’ concerns were being resolved.
Over the past few months, bureaucrats from the Health department have been meeting with volunteer reps from the communities.
“We thought they were satisfied with the commitments that had been made, both in terms of action and in decisions to come in the near future,” said Cathers.
“I think there’s been a case of misunderstanding and miscommunication here.”
The government thought it had reached an agreement in principle with representatives from the rural groups.
The agreement dealt with the issues that were easier to address — such as an increase to the discretionary fund — and left other more complicated issues for further consideration.
“Rather than dwelling on the past, we want to get everyone back to the table and coverage back in place,” said Cathers.
In dealing with the current situation, Cathers heard many different proposals from community groups.
Some want to see volunteers paid for the hours they spend on call. Others want to see the government pony up the funds to pay full-time or auxiliary employees in the communities.
Some of those proposals will cost “many millions of dollars,” said Cathers.
The government is not ruling out any options the communities have brought forward to solve the problem.
And it is not committing to any either, said Cathers.
“When the numbers are reviewed and the options are discussed thoroughly, my experience has been that volunteers, health-care professionals and citizens generally understand why decisions are made.
“In fact, they’re often very supportive when they understand the challenges from the policy and finance side.”
Too little, too late, said NDP leader Todd Hardy on Thursday.
“The NDP would have been on top of these issues,” said Hardy.
“As a leader I would call in the Health minister and say, ‘What the heck is going on in your department? How has it got to this point?’”
Sending a manager to operate the ambulance is not an answer.
It doesn’t meet the needs of the community.
“This is a government that doesn’t seem to recognize the seriousness of the issues and only reacts once a crisis arises,” he said.
“Their priorities are on mining and oil and gas development and not on social issues.
“Unfortunately we have a government that is so intent on chasing economic mega projects, such as pipelines and railroads, that it is ignoring the basic needs of rural Yukoners.”
It took the NDP three days to respond to the walkout in Watson Lake.
The extra time was need to understand the situation, said Hardy.
“We knew there was more coming.
“What we try to do is find out how deep the problem is before we go charging out of the gate and criticize the government.”
So far this year, Carmacks’ six-person station has dealt with 70 emergency calls.
In 2006, the station dealt with 60 in the entire year.
Village ambulance supervisor Lorraine Kontogonis has enough volunteers ready to respond half of the time.
The rest of the time, she has to scramble to find somebody to send out.
“It’s a challenge,” she said.
Kontogonis has responded to 54 of the 70 calls herself.
For the past six years, her radio has been her constant companion 24/7.
Ambulance service cannot continue in the community under the current system.
“It’s really tough — unless we get more qualified volunteers,” said Kontogonis, who also works a full-time job in the village office.
“We’re exhausting ourselves.
“I’m very fortunate to have bosses that will let me leave, but I don’t know how long I can stretch that,” she said.
“There are some things I cannot drop, like deadlines, and I just dread the radio ringing.”
While the Health department managers she’s dealt with have been helpful, Kontogonis is looking for more government support.
She has asked the government to fund one or two full-time positions to cover the slack in the community.
“I know that there is the workload for that person and it will guarantee to the community that somebody is going to be there.”
Kontogonis and her crew have not considered a walkout.
But she hopes the actions of volunteers in Watson and Dawson will draw attention to the issue and make the government pay attention to the communities’ concerns.
“We’re not here for the money, we’re not here for the glory, we’re here to help the people,” she said.
“But you can get to the point where you feel a little abused.”
Teslin faced similar
situation last year
Unlike Cathers, former Teslin ambulance attendant Richard Oziewicz wasn’t surprised to learn of the walkouts in Watson Lake and Dawson.
Frustrated with the government’s lack of support, he and his wife resigned from their volunteer posts in the community a year ago.
They haven’t been involved since.
“We didn’t have enough volunteers,” said Oziewicz, who would work on-call for days at a time.
“They just gave us money and extra uniforms, but that wasn’t our point — at least here in Teslin.”
“Now Dawson and Watson seem to be doing exactly what we did last year in Teslin,” he said.
“We thought it was always just a Band-Aid solution and the Band-Aid fell off.
“It’s the same old story.”
Teslin ambulance reps referred all questions to the Health department.