The Yukon’s rural ambulance crisis has put public safety and tourism at risk, says Dawson’s acting chamber of commerce president.
“One mishap and it will spread like wildfire,” said Brad Whitelaw from Dawson on Friday. “Public safety and tourism are directly affected.
“People who are travelling like to think they are safe on the road and someone will respond if a mishap happens.
“If that safety net isn’t there, it might sway their decision to travel.”
Whitelaw, who owns the Triple J Hotel, is drafting letters to Premier Dennis Fentie and Health Minister Brad Cathers citing the chamber’s concern.
Tourists driving the highway this week were not aware that emergency services along the Alaska Highway were volunteer-based and sometimes spotty.
Many had concerns when told about the crisis.
Maxey Helmert recently had open-heart surgery.
Two months later, the 60-year-old Arkansas man drove up the highway on vacation with his wife and another couple.
Helmert assumed that if there were complications, help would be just a phone call away.
He had no idea that ambulance service outside Whitehorse was volunteer-based.
“Where we come from they have EMS in every town that has any population at all,” he said.
“And they’re paid to do their job.
“It ain’t a volunteer thing.”
“To be honest, it makes me a little nervous,” said his wife Kay, stirring onions and garlic on a camp stove.
“I like it up here, but it’d be nice to know there was help if something happened.”
Most tourists driving the Alaska Highway are “senior adults who are subject to health problems,” said Deola Amos.
The 62-year-old Knoxville, Tennessee resident just assumed she could call 911 in case of emergency, anywhere along the highway.
“I live in a rural area and we still have 911,” she said, standing at the Hi Country RV Park car- washing station.
Most tourists coming from the US don’t have a clue that emergency services are limited in the Yukon, said Amos.
“We just assume you have what we have in the US.”
And if these same tourists found out territorial ambulance services are frequently run by overworked, under-trained volunteers, they would think twice about that road trip north, she said.
“At my age, it’s something I would definitely think about,” said 65-year-old Pat Wood.
“I’m a heart patient,” said 63-year-old Nancy Skokan, waving her medical bracelet.
Skokan had just met a man driving north with his parents, who required oxygen.
“They should put a sign at the border that says ‘No ambulance service,’” she said.
Last year, a tourist died of a heart attack in Teslin while the local ambulance was on another call.
At the time, one of Teslin’s two attendants argued that the highway should be posted with signs — ambulances with a red line through them.
A year later, problems persist in rural communities.
“If it’s going to be an ongoing problem, tourists should be advised,” said Wood, shaking her head.
People take their health very seriously, said Klondike Visitor Association marketing manager Bill Holmes on Thursday.
It’s the responsibility of tourists driving north to recognize that they are coming to an area of the globe with services that are few and far between, he said.
“But, on the other hand, I think it is our responsibility as a territory, after going to great extents to invite these people to come here, to insure that we have the infrastructure in place, such as medical services, to make sure that those visitors are protected and taken care of while they’re in our territory.”
And that infrastructure is not in place, said Holmes.
As a taxpayer, who’s lived in the Yukon for two decades raising a family of four, Holmes was under the assumption that the territorial government was doing its best to ensure people who live here and people who come to visit had the resources at their disposal to receive emergency services.
“But I think that we’re starting to see signs that a portion of our infrastructure has been neglected for some time,” he said.
And that will impact tourism, said Holmes.
“When people go on holiday they want to feel safe and they want to know that they don’t have to worry. That they can have a good time, and if an accident does happen they will be taken care of.”
Folks are healthier these days, added Holmes. “But that being said, accidents do happen.
“And certainly people with health concerns would like to know that the territory has in place measures that will assist them in getting them the help that they need in a timely fashion.”
The Yukon is a remote area, said Tourism’s acting director Rod Raycroft.
“And the reality is, there is not coverage everywhere,” he said, citing river systems.
In its vacation guide and through travel agents it works with, the Department of Tourism informs people they are coming to a remote area of Canada, he said.
“We tell them there are services in the communities — health stations and nurses’ stations.
“So that’s a consideration they have to take.
“Excellent medical facilities are available in Whitehorse, Watson Lake and Dawson City, while smaller communities have nursing stations and on-call medical staff,” said Raycroft, reading from Tourism’s vacation guide.
Raycroft does not think the ongoing ambulance/volunteer crisis will impact tourism in the territory.
Health Services is stepping up to the plate, he said.
“And I have every confidence in the Department of Health.”
Walking his chow at the RV park, Mike Siedschlag didn’t share Raycroft’s confidence.
The 52-year-old Idaho man knew he was going to “be in the outback,” but he didn’t realize volunteers run the territory’s rural ambulance services.
“That’s a big commitment from people,” he said.
Siedschlag was driving the Alaska Highway to learn a little more about his grandfather, who helped build it.
“It’s kind of a scary thought to think if something happened, there could be nobody there to help you,” he said.
Yukoners are extremely friendly and always willing to roll up their sleeves and help when help is needed, said Holmes.
“And relying on a volunteer base is one thing — but relying on a volunteer base that receives very little support is another,” he said.
“We have to be aware that our frontline people are the ones that are giving us the most accurate and timely on-the-ground interpretation of what’s happening — and it doesn’t seem like they’re being listened to.
“If we’re entrusting these people to take care of saving lives, then we should have enough confidence in them to start listening to them.”