Full time paramedics too pricey in Haines Junction, says government

A member of Haines Junction's volunteer EMS team says the Yukon government needs to develop a territory-wide plan for rural communities without paid ambulance staff. Dave Weir is one of 17 volunteer paramedics in the community.

A member of Haines Junction’s volunteer EMS team says the Yukon government needs to develop a territory-wide plan for rural communities without paid ambulance staff.

Dave Weir is one of 17 volunteer paramedics in the community. Like many Yukon communities, Haines Junction’s emergency medical service is run by a crew of volunteers, who sign up to be on call in case of an emergency.

Filling shifts in Haines Junction during the summer months has been particularly challenging in the past.

In July 2014, for example, only two shifts had full coverage, while two-thirds of the shifts had no coverage at all.

That left residents depending on service from Whitehorse in the event of an emergency.

Last summer, the Yukon government launched a pilot project to assess whether having full-time staff through the summer months would address the community’s concerns.

It hired six paid emergency responders to work in the community with the goal of giving existing volunteers a “booster shot,” according to the government’s review of the project.

The pilot, which lasted from the end of May until the end of September, was a success, by all accounts.

Haines Junction had 100 per cent EMS coverage during that time, up from an all-time low of 19 per cent in July 2014.

Four participants even continued to work with the Haines Junction EMS team in a volunteer capacity.

But the government ultimately decided that it was too expensive to have paid ambulance staff in the community.

It determined that each of the 37 calls addressed during the pilot program cost $4,077.

In comparison, calls addressed by paid teams in Whitehorse average $475, while calls in Teslin and Carmacks cost $925 and $1,163, respectively.

In its review of the program, the government concluded that a full-time staffing model wasn’t “financially advisable” in any community where call volumes average less than one call per workday.

It also stated there wasn’t enough EMS work to support permanent employment of this type.

Weir said health care is a territorial responsibility, not a municipal one.

“Staffing is an essential part of that responsibility,” he said.

“The reality is the volunteer model works well in some places, but it doesn’t work well here.”

The issue has nothing to do with the number of volunteers in the community, Weir said.

In fact, Haines Junction has the largest volunteer base among Yukon communities.

The heart of the issue, he said, is the way the system is set up. It makes it difficult for volunteers to juggle their EMS work with other responsibilities.

During the pilot, shifts were 10 hours long in a three days on, six days off schedule.

According to the government’s review of the program, it’s a superior schedule as it “allows for improved holiday, weekend and after-hours coverage while still encouraging volunteer involvement.”

But Weir said volunteers typically spend four to seven hours responding to a single call.

“It starts to have an impact on what people volunteer for,” he said.

“If you get a call in the morning you could be gone all day and miss a day of work.”

Yukon EMS director Jeff Simons said the program was successful because it increased the volunteer base in Haines Junction to 17, up from 13.

Communities are responsible to help recruit volunteers and champion their programs, he added.

Yukon EMS’s role is to help communities to develop and support the resources that are already in place, he said.

Weir said if the government can’t afford to have paid ambulance staff in Haines Junction, it should come clean with its citizens.

He would like to see a statement from Yukon EMS, which outlines what kind of service rural residents can expect to receive.

That doesn’t exist right now, Weir said.

Lisa Preto, a mother of two young children, lives in Haines Junction. She said residents are left in the dark about what’s available to them in the case of an emergency.

“We assume it’s (the service) there when we need it,” she said.

“The nurses here are excellent but in a situation where someone is crushed or mauled, and they need someone trained to help them out, what do we do? That would be horrible.”

Based on Weir’s estimates, it could take upwards of six hours from the time a Haines Junction resident is seriously injured until they finally go into surgery at a hospital Outside. That includes the time it would take for an ambulance to arrive in Haines Junction, transport a patient to Whitehorse and be medevaced to a hospital.

Contact Myles Dolphin at