Teslin’s ambulance corps has been cut in half.
After 11 years of service, Richard Oziewicz has resigned from the volunteer post. His wife Brenda, the village’s ambulance supervisor, will resign at the end of the month.
The abrupt departures leave the community with only one attendant, who will also act as supervisor.
“The system doesn’t work, and very few people want to look at any real solutions, said Brenda Oziewicz on Thursday. “So far, everything has just been Band-Aid solutions.”
Teslin’s situation is dire.
“Those guys in Teslin are on call 24/7, 365 days a year and the radios we all have to carry are 10-pound bricks,” said Carmacks ambulance supervisor Lorraine Kontogonis, speaking before the resignations occurred.
“Mine goes everywhere with me, I don’t leave it anywhere. And it’s tough — it’s really tough,” she said.
“It’s a huge responsibility and guilt really does set in.”
Currently, Carmacks has eight volunteer ambulance attendants.
But Kontogonis can only count on two or three of them to answer a call. And one is her husband.
“I have to jab him in the ribs and say, ‘OK you have to go,’” she said with a laugh.
“We can’t get enough dedicated volunteers.”
Most people feel that, as a volunteer, they shouldn’t have to stick around, said Kontogonis.
“I understand their position, they might be really busy themselves: It’s hard to find someone that says, ‘You know what, there’s a call, we gotta’ go.’
“I’m desperate enough to say, all I need is a driver, someone who can drive the vehicle, which then puts me basically on call — and if you get three or four calls in a week, that’s a lot ‘cause most of us have full-time jobs and families and yard work and shopping to do.”
Finding holiday time is almost impossible, said Kontogonis.
“If you want to take off for two weeks, then who’s going to stand by in the community?
“It’s really difficult.”
One of Kontogonis’s New Year’s resolutions was to take more weekends off and go camping, because last year she stayed home most of the time, tied to her radio.
But with only a few dedicated volunteers, Kontogonis even finds it hard to run into Whitehorse for the day.
“My job has just been terrific,” she said.
When she gets an ambulance call, her employer usually lets her leave.
But there are times Kontogonis can’t leave.
“And that’s where all the guilt starts, and pressure,” she said.
There should be a few full-time ambulance attendant positions in each community, said Kontogonis.
And when they aren’t out on a call, they could work in the health centre, hosting clinics and assisting the nurses, she said.
“There’s not that many calls, but at least someone would be there, always on call.
“Right now, we’re always on call, but you never know what is going to happen tomorrow. If I decide to run to town and everyone else is scattered and there’s no one here, then it becomes really difficult.”
Kontogonis was told the government wouldn’t approve of hiring full-time staff — it would send costs through the roof.
“In a perfect world we would have top-notch teams at a moment’s notice for every single community,” said Dawson ambulance supervisor Aedes Scheer.
“But it isn’t quite a perfect world.”
At one time, Scheer clamoured for a full-time paid crew in Dawson, but now she’s not so sure.
“Maybe we haven’t exhausted all the possibilities,” she said.
“We’ve been working with this particular model for a number of years and maybe it just takes really looking at how we do things; maybe it can be done a different way with volunteers so we wouldn’t run into these problems.”
During her 10 years as Dawson’s ambulance supervisor, Scheer experienced some “crunches” when it came to volunteers.
Dawson ambulance gets between 180 to 200 calls a year and last winter there were only two volunteers, said Scheer.
Dawson’s been short attendants before, and could easily end up there again, she added.
“And if we hit those desperate times frequently enough, this could warrant changing how we run the volunteer service.
“But you’d have to talk to the people sitting in the offices in Whitehorse who do all the number-crunching and the stats at the end of the year to answer that.
“I just know my little service here and how it’s run, and we just try to do the best we can.”
This summer, things picked up in Dawson, said Scheer, who signed-up 21 volunteers.
“But we’re volunteers,” she said.
“Once a call comes in, we’re paid, but we’re volunteers and that means we do the very best we can and that’s as much as you can do.”
The numbers of volunteers wax and wane in each community, said Health and Social Services spokesperson Pat Living, relying on notes provided by the department’s ambulance supervisor.
“Some people volunteer in fundraising organizations, some people volunteer in kids’ programs and some people volunteer as firefighters or as volunteer ambulance attendants,” said Living.
“I don’t think any community right now is facing the issue Teslin is facing, but that’s not to say it couldn’t happen.”
But Carmacks is having trouble too.
“Looking at Teslin, I’m glad we’re not the only ones going through all that,” said Kontogonis.
“Lots of communities only have two people and that’s just tough, I think I’d go nuts,” said Mayo ambulance supervisor Tanya Slavin.
“Really, I don’t know how they’d do it.”
Slavin, who is one of eight ambulance volunteers, counts herself lucky.
“We have a great team here,” she said.
“We have good people on call, and when that radio goes they’re there.”
When it comes to having paid staff, Slavin isn’t so sure.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” she said. “I think if you’re a volunteer, you’re a volunteer and that’s what you do.
“But I also feel it’s such a huge responsibility.
“And there’s the guilt if you miss a call. Or like what happened in Teslin — someone died ‘cause you weren’t there — it’s out of your control, but still the guilt would be there.
“You’re putting people’s lives in your hands and if you don’t have a good team and a good crew, then (a paid position or a per diem) might be a way to get people to do it.”
Like Mayo, Faro has a solid crew of six volunteers, said Faro ambulance attendant Cyndy Bekk.
“I thoroughly enjoy working on the crew,” she said.
“Although I haven’t worn a skirt and sandals much this summer, in case I get a call.”
Bekk also appreciates the medical training she receives as an ambulance volunteer.
“These are marketable skills you could take with you if you left the community,” she said.
“You’d have to pay to take the courses in some places. But here, we’re paid for taking them.”
Volunteers are offered free training courses and are given bonuses if they are still in volunteering in the communities six months later, said Living.
“Before, people would take the training in the summer, then bugger off,” said Tagish ambulance supervisor Brian Pope.
“This is when they started offering a bonus after six months.”
In Tagish, Pope works with a crew of seven.
“And almost all of us are over 65,” he said.
“It’s been all the same crew since ’99, except one new, young one, who’s 60.”
Tagish only gets about 50 calls a year.
“Sometimes we get three calls in one day, then none for three months,” said Pope.
If Pope wants to go away for a long weekend, or have a drink after dinner, he plays the odds.
But there is always the nagging thought, “What if I get a call?” he said.
“I go to bed every night with my radio by my ear.”
Paid positions, or a per diem would help the situation, said Pope.
It would force him to create a schedule, allowing the volunteers established time off, he said.
“Right now we just all carry radios,” he said.
“And when a call comes in, we find a team and figure out who can go.”
Traditionally, there’s always a low volume of calls in rural areas, said Living.
And there’s no standby pay in similar jurisdictions, like the Northwest Territories and parts of Saskatchewan, she said.
“So, we haven’t actually set a precedent here.
“Really, it’s a personal choice what individuals want to volunteer for.”