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Code Red

Documents show call volume for emergency medical services going up
Emergency vehicles respond to an incident at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter in May 2022. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

Sue Christianson had been vomiting and dry heaving for hours by 3:30 a.m. on March 23. That’s around when she called for help.

In an April 5 interview, Christianson said that when she called 911, she was told there was no ambulance available.

“I said, ‘Excuse me?’ They said, ‘There isn’t one available right now. If you could wait’ — I think, they said — ‘about an hour, then we would be able to probably get one then. And otherwise, can you get a ride to the hospital?’” she said.

“I was quite shocked.”

Christianson said she hung up and got a ride from Riverdale to the Whitehorse General Hospital right away.

“But it concerns me if it’s a systemic issue,” she said.

“If somebody is having a heart attack, or if there’s an emergency and they can’t get somebody else or they can’t talk freely, then how are they going to get to the hospital? Are they going to die waiting?”

The Yukon NDP has been criticizing the territorial government for not providing enough money for paramedic positions to adequately provide coverage in the territory.

On March 29, Yukon NDP Leader Kate White told the Yukon legislature the problem is putting Yukoners’ lives at risk.

“Without enough available paramedics at all times, some people may not make it to the hospital when they are in a medical emergency,” White said.

The Yukon NDP has raised questions about funding for emergency medical services (EMS) multiple times during the spring sitting of the Yukon Legislative Assembly.

“An additional full-time medic unit would go a long way to reducing Code Reds and wait times,” White said.

“It would reduce stress and burnout for existing medic teams and improve retention in a very difficult profession. Most importantly, it could save Yukoners’ lives in an emergency, but this hypothetical additional team is not budgeted for.”

A Code Red means there are more requests for service than capacity to respond to those requests. The Yukon government’s standard operating manual defines a Code Red as “a situation where the number of emergency service requests for assignment exceeds all available EMS transport (ambulance) vehicles. Emergency requests are pending/holding.”

Documents obtained under access to information laws and provided to the Yukon NDP and the News give a glimpse of Code Reds and wait times for EMS.

In the documents, data shared by email shows a range in the number of Code Reds per month between January 2021 and September 2022, ranging from 10 in January 2022 to 46 in July 2022.

In the documents, Code Reds are increasing and this is considered normal given the rising call volume.

The documents also contain call logs from July 1, 2019, to September 30, 2022. For example, in July 2022, there were 39 instances in which wait times for emergency medical services were more than two hours from call received (the time the call is accepted by dispatch) to crew mobile (the time the crew notifies dispatch the ambulance is mobile).

A section of the documents fall under the title “Yukon EMS deployment plan, draft framework building”.

“Based on the 4.3 per cent call volume increase per 1.7 per cent of population growth, we can predict that in 10 years Yukon EMS will handle 12,900 calls in 2030,” reads the document.

It notes this prediction assumes the system will continue operating under the status quo.

“Planning for sufficient transporting resources to meet future demand as well as alternative system delivery modalities should begin now, prior to the system exceeding capacity,” the document goes on.

“Consideration to making Medic #4 a 24/7 unit as well as an additional ground transporting unit in Whitehorse should be given thought for long term strategic planning, regardless if that planning is included in a current deployment plan or not.”

According to White, the number of paramedic teams being funded by the Yukon government has not kept pace with the territory’s growing population.

In an interview on April 4, White weighed in on the wait time and Code Red data.

“I think it should be of concern to folks,” she said. From her perspective, the number of Code Reds is unacceptable.

“We have the expectation that when we call 911 for help that an ambulance is on its way.”

White suggested paramedics are tapped out.

“They’ve been on the frontlines of every health emergency we’ve had,” she said.

“They must feel the pressure.”

The Yukon NDP called on the minister to commit to improving emergency medical services response times by permanently funding more ambulance crews.

Minister of Community Services Richard Mostyn did not make a commitment in the House. He said emergency medical services operations in Whitehorse are fully staffed.

“EMS manages situations through a variety of approaches to reduce patient impact and prioritize critical care. At times, this may mean that emergency medical services repositions people and ambulances to ensure coverage. It ensures coverage from the nearest units; it utilizes medevac among other ways to deliver services,” he said.

“They are doing a tremendous job. You are not going to get any other answer out of me.”

Mostyn admitted there is a situation, but it is not unique to the territory.

“We see it in every single city, territory and province in the country, and we are managing it through maintaining aggressive recruitment,” he said.

“We are training new staff. We have orientation programs. We have training protocols that are going out across the territory. We are always looking for volunteers and professionals.”

As of April 1, the Yukon government officially announced in a March 30 release, emergency medical services has shifted from the responsibility of the department of Community Services to Health and Social Services.

Gerard Dinn, Yukon government’s chief of emergency medical services, disputes White’s characterization of the issue and interpretation of the data.

Code Reds do not equate to being underfunded or a lack of staffing, he told the News by phone on April 5.

Dinn said there are enough paramedic teams being funded to properly provide coverage in the territory, and Yukoners are not at risk.

“We will always have Code Reds,” he said.

Dinn said a Code Red doesn’t necessarily mean an ambulance isn’t available. More than two hours between the call received and crews notified doesn’t mean a significant delay and a departure from standard operations, according to Dinn. It could indicate a low-acuity request, such as an inter-facility transfer.

“In those situations, EMS does something we call an operational Code Red,” he said.

“We will hold that call in the queue until we have enough resources available to meet that request.”

Mitigation strategies are in place to reduce the number of Code Reds and lower wait times, which are closely monitored, according to Dinn. Approximately 30 assets are positioned at 17 ambulance stations across the territory, he said.

“Certainly, adding additional units, you know, decreasing call volume is a way to do that, and that’s what we’ve done with the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter and the paramedic response unit,” he said.

“The last time we formally increased staffing, I do believe, was in 2014. However, EMS has added Medic #5 and #6, which was funded and supported by the department to support any increase in call volume and to mitigate Code Reds.”

A release from the Yukon government on June 30, 2020, indicates paramedics stationed at the shelter attended more than 1,200 interactions with shelter clients since the beginning of 2020.

“We’ve demonstrated with data that this has reduced the number of responses by ambulances to the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter, thus freeing up ambulances to be available to the community,” Dinn said.

“We have a responsibility in EMS to identify times of increased call volume and to add more units when needed, and that’s what we do.”

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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