Watson Lake’s eight on-call ambulance attendants have walked off the job.
Tired of being shackled to radios 24/7 for almost no pay, the town’s volunteers handed in the devices on Monday morning.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Watson attendant Stacy Doyle.
The growing number of calls coupled with recent trouble keeping volunteers has left the town’s remaining attendants “frustrated” and “burnt out,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Health department sent rural emergency medical services manager Barry Kidd to Watson Lake to pick up radios and respond to calls with a volunteer driver from the community.
Kidd has also requested a meeting with the attendants, which is scheduled for Wednesday evening, said spokesperson Dennis Senger on Tuesday.
The department will wait to see what the volunteers say at the meeting before planning its next step, said Senger.
But the problem in the community has been building for years and the volunteers feel that government has not listened to their concerns in the past.
“All of us feel the same way — we don’t want to see the community neglected,” said Doyle. “We need to see some action and the only way to do that is to stand strong.”
Over the past few months, with the increased summer tourism traffic on the highway, the situation has become critical.
“There’s been a couple calls where there have been no attendants and they’ve had to scramble,” said ambulance supervisor Pauline Lund on Tuesday.
“They had to send the RCMP in our place on one call, and you can’t have that.”
The attendants felt they could not guarantee service to the community, so they cut it off.
“They’re scared that a call will come in and nobody will respond. And they feel guilty,” she said.
The ambulance service covers Watson Lake, the nearby Liard First Nation and hundreds of kilometres of highway.
Five years ago the detachment dealt with 100 calls a year. Today it averages more than 400.
“Every year it’s becoming a bigger struggle to keep people on the service,” said Lund, who has been working as a responder for 16 years.
“There might be days when we don’t get a call, but then all hell can break loose and we’ll be going steady.”
Although Lund has recruited a handful of volunteers in recent drives, it’s difficult to get them properly trained and keep them working.
“People get discouraged because they can’t get time off,” said Lund. “When you are packing a radio you don’t have a social life — you are committed to that radio.”
For many volunteers in the community, 12-hour shifts turn into 24 hours or weeklong shifts because there is no one else to cover the slack.
Sometimes, to get a break from the radio’s constant crackle and responsibility, some volunteers will simply turn it off for an evening, she said.
“I should be able to pay somebody and say, ‘OK, you’re on for the next five days, these people need a break’ but that doesn’t happen,” said Lund.
She has asked the government to bring in paid auxiliary workers to cover the busy summer season.
Kidd and the Yukon’s EMS director, Beatrice Felker, have made numerous trips to Watson to discuss the situation.
“It seems that we give them our concerns and then we don’t know what happens because we don’t hear anything back,” said Lund, who blames the bureaucrats between Felker and Premier Dennis Fentie for the lack of action.
“They don’t even talk to us,” she said. “I guess as long as they are getting their wages they don’t really care what happens.”
The government hires two auxiliary employees every year to put wood in the campground and lime in the toilets, said Lund. “But they don’t concern themselves with the ambulance service.”
Ambulance attendants, who work in Watson Lake and other rural communities are considered volunteers.
They are not considered employees and they are not paid to be on-call.
Once a call comes in and they go into the field, volunteers are paid an hourly wage that ranges between $18 and $25, depending on their qualifications.
“That’s a good rate,” said Lund. “It’s just that there are six days in the week where you don’t get anything and you’re still carrying the radio.”
In Whitehorse, auxiliary employees get $50 a day for carrying a radio.
“There seems to be a double standard — Whitehorse does it one way and the communities have to live another way,” said Lund.
The walkout did not come as a surprise to Watson Lake mayor Nancy Moore.
“We get more than 400 calls a year in Watson Lake and they’re manning it with volunteers — that just seems crazy to me,” she said on Tuesday.
“We knew they were coming to the point where they couldn’t function. We knew they were feeling very vulnerable and under a lot of pressure and burnt out.”
The community has thrown its support behind the volunteers and hopes for a quick solution that will see full ambulance service back on Watson’s highways.
“I’d like to see some paid staffing down here and, barring that, at least some adequate compensation for when they have to sit on call,” said Moore.
“We support our ambulance crew in their efforts to secure compensation — other than that the town can’t do much else.”
Government mute while other communities face similar crisis
Problems with rural ambulance service in the territory are not new.
And they are not confined to Watson Lake.
Crews in Dawson City are facing the same crunch. Volunteer numbers in the town have fluctuated, and at points have plummeted to one responder available to take the approximately 200 calls that come in each year.
The News also followed the story last summer when a woman died of a heart attack in Teslin while the village’s two ambulance attendants were on another call.
After working around the clock for two years Teslin’s ambulance supervisor and one of the two volunteers resigned, leaving the community with one responder.
At that time, the News also heard similar concerns from attendants in Dawson and Carmacks.
In May, the rural ambulance issue was brought forward at the Association of Yukon Communities meeting in Dawson City.
“It’s not something that has just come up, this is something that’s been around for a long time and it’s just not a surprise,” said Association of Yukon Communities president Doug Graham.
“Watson Lake brought a resolution requesting assistance from the territorial government forward that was quickly followed by a resolution from Haines Junction, who had the exact same problem.”
Graham forwarded the resolutions to the government, and has not received a response.
“It’s a pity it’s come to this,” said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell. “Obviously neither the Premier (Dennis Fentie) nor Health Minister (Brad Cathers) has been listening.”
Following the meeting, Mitchell also raised the issue in the legislature. He asked the government to spend $85 million to “train and retain” ambulance personnel in the communities.
“What they need to do is have the people in charge sit down with the people providing the service, listen to their concerns and make the adjustments that are necessary.”
Fentie and Cathers refused interview requests on the issue.
Smaller communities such as Faro and Mayo — which are also located off of the Alaska Highway’s well-beaten path of summer tourist traffic — are not facing the same crunch.
Faro’s eight volunteers handle 50 calls a year.
“It’s a very different dynamic than in places like Watson and Dawson that have by far the most calls out,” said the town’s ambulance supervisor Ted Baker.
Mayo’s 14 volunteers respond to anywhere between 100 and 200 calls annually.
“We have a great situation here,” said Mayo’s ambulance supervisor Tanya Salvin, who sympathizes with workers in busier communities.
“I feel bad for those people who have to go out every day,” said Salvin.
“These people have full-time jobs and lives also — they’re volunteers and they’re burnt out.
“I don’t know what I’d do,” she added.