Haines Junction sees gaps in ambulance service

The Haines Junction volunteer ambulance service needs some help. In July of this year, only two shifts had full coverage, and two-thirds of the shifts had no coverage at all.

The Haines Junction volunteer ambulance service needs some help.

In July of this year, only two shifts had full coverage, and two-thirds of the shifts had no coverage at all.

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

“When we don’t have coverage in Haines Junction, they serve us out of Whitehorse, either by air or by ground, and that has a significant difference potentially for patient outcome,” said Dave Weir, a member of the volunteer EMS service.

“It also puts the nurses in a bit of a position, because they get the call, they know what’s going on but they don’t have a way to transport patients and to help the patients get the care they need.”

Getting shifts covered has been an issue for three or four years, especially on weekends and in the summer, said Weir.

This year the problem is creeping into the fall, too, he said.

Fifteen Yukon communities have a volunteer EMS force.

They attend regular meetings and training on a volunteer basis. Available training includes emergency medical responder and driving courses, among others.

Twelve-hour shifts are paid $3.50 an hour for being on call, said Weir.

If there is a call out, that jumps to between $20 and $29 per hour, depending on training level.

Payment is not the issue in Haines Junction, and neither is the size of the pool of volunteers, said Weir.

“As a crew, we pondered the idea of, ‘Would increasing the on-call pay or the call-out pay help?’ We’ve come to a conclusion as a crew that that really isn’t it. We don’t want more money. That has got nothing to do with it.

“So far, a lot of what we’ve heard from YG has been, ‘You need to find more volunteers. You need to find more volunteers.’ To me that’s an answer that’s indicative of the fact that I don’t think they understand the problem. We actually have the largest volunteer base in the Yukon. We have 14 people on our crew.”

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

Shifts last 12 hours, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. or vice versa.

But if there’s a call at the end of the shift, you could end up on duty for another seven hours, said Weir.

“If you get a call at 7:45 in the morning, you could be gone till three in the afternoon.”

That’s tough to commit to if you have a job, a family and other responsibilities, he said.

And with about 130 calls in Haines Junction per year, if you sign up for a shift, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be busy.

Only conversation and creative solutions will solve the issue, said Weir.

“The solution is essentially going to come from getting the stakeholders to sit around the kitchen table and hammer through some ideas and figure out what’s going to work for different stakeholders.”

That meeting should include Community Services, Health and Social Services, the Village of Haines Junction, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, the nurses and the EMS volunteers, he said.

The trick will be to establish common goals and hammer out some ideas, said Weir.

“Can we use some of the graduates from the Yukon College primary care paramedic program over the summers in Haines Junction, to help them gain some experience? Could we create a full-time EMR position in Haines Junction that also helps nurses out, because I know they’re overworked as well? These are the kinds of things we need to brainstorm, and see what is going to work for the different stakeholders.”

Community Services Minister Brad Cathers said in an interview this week that the department is open to talk about what a solution might look like.

“We have reiterated through the supervisor for the area that we’re committed to having staff talk to them about what next steps should be to improve the coverage situation in Haines Junction.”

Steps were taken earlier this year to recruit more volunteers and make more radios available, he said.

“We recognize that the steps that were taken by department staff in 2014 in an attempt to reduce gaps in coverage in Haines Junction haven’t worked as well as we had hoped.”

But it’s unlikely that the Haines Junction crew will be offered support that cannot be made available to all of the volunteer EMS crews across the Yukon.

“While we recognize the specific challenges in Haines Junction and need to come up with a solution that works for them, we also have to have a solution that’s mindful of and consistent with the types of solutions we consider for other rural EMS areas because that fairness and consistency is something that needs to be kept in mind,” said Cathers.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at