The Yukon government must pull the plug on its rural ambulance policy.
It’s time the volunteer-based system was allowed to die, particularly in the larger communities.
As this paper goes to press, Watson Lake has nothing but a skeleton crew operating its ambulance base. One attendant and a volunteer driver. That’s it.
It’s a dangerous situation.
It’s one Health Minister Brad Cathers should have fixed long ago.
On Monday, the community’s entire eight-person volunteer team resigned en masse.
They were burnt out and fed up with the lack of support from the territory.
This year, the Watson Lake crew wrote several letters detailing problems and asking for help. They didn’t even receive a response.
So they quit.
Cathers didn’t need to be a gypsy soothsayer to see this coming.
The Association of Yukon Communities flagged the problem at its convention this spring.
And the problems have been widely reported for years.
In 2005, Teslin’s two-person crew was burnt out. It threatened to suspend service.
Instead of sinking some money into the volunteer service, the government hired Highways and Public Works employees to drive the community’s ambulance.
The problem died down over the winter, but last summer Teslin’s problem resurfaced.
After those workers recounted their problems to the News, the government responded.
It slapped a gag order on its volunteer crews throughout the territory, ordering them not to talk to the media.
But, some community ambulance volunteers ignored the media ban, reporting conditions were similarly bad in their communities, including Carmacks and Dawson City.
The problem is fairly simple.
Ambulance service in rural Yukon is currently based on volunteerism, like coaching sports.
Alright, not exactly like coaching.
The crews, when they are on shift, are on call 24 hours a day.
It’s a life-or-death duty.
It seems glamorous until you arrive on the scene of your first bad accident. Then you quickly learn it involves blood and puke and gore. That, alone, often culls the volunteer list.
And when they are on call, the volunteers are anchored to their radios. And they must stay close to the base.
They can’t go camping. They can’t drink. They can’t relax. Not completely.
When a call comes, they drop whatever they are doing and go.
They get paid an hourly stipend when they respond to an emergency.
But they don’t get paid for being on call. And that’s 99 per cent of the job.
Teslin’s two volunteers were on call for years without break — they were tethered to their radios.
They repeatedly asked the government for help. When the government failed to provide any, they quit.
The Yukon government went on an emergency recruiting drive and reported it had drummed up six new volunteers in the village.
Health officials said everything was hunky-dory.
But calls to the community this week suggest the service is once again in crisis.
And Watson Lake’s crew simply resigned.
The community had eight volunteers. That may seem like a lot, but clearly it’s not enough.
The village is the gateway to the Yukon — a chokepoint that handles virtually all the traffic entering or leaving the territory.
It is a community that services an active mine based in the NWT.
It is a community with substantial drug and alcohol problems.
It is a busy place.
There were more then 400 ambulance calls in Watson Lake last year.
Is it fair to put all the responsibility for public safety in such a place on the shoulders of a handful of volunteers?
For two years, several Yukon communities have asked for help recruiting and keeping ambulance attendants.
They want support — a stipend when they are on call and better training.
In BC, rural ambulance workers are paid between $2 and $5 a day when they are on call.
The Yukon has refused to do even that.
In fact, it has done nothing. For years.
Now it has lost Watson Lake’s volunteers.
And other communities are close to quitting.
The Yukon pays campground workers to stock firewood bins. It pays people to hand out tourism flyers in its visitor reception centres.
But it’s not prepared to pay its rural ambulance corps.
This is shameful.
Cathers must bolster the rural ambulance service.
For years, volunteers have done a commendable service. Now it’s time they got some proper pay and better training.