Fort Smith’s volunteer EMS facing staff shortage

Fort Smith’s volunteer EMS facing staff shortage
Fort Smith’s EMS crew, from left: Jonah Gordon, Adam Bathe, Chris Bird, Matthew Bird and Tony Jones. The crew is made up entirely of volunteers from the area.Photo: Maria Church.

For Chris Bird, being a volunteer emergency responder in his home community of Fort Smith is something he wishes he began earlier.

“It’s a hobby for me. I love it. Some people like trains or photography or whatever, but I love this,” he shared with The Journal last week.

Bird chose to volunteer for the town’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) about three years ago after his wife experienced a medical emergency in town. He was beyond thankful for the care shown by the emergency responders and decided it was time to give back.

“For me it’s the ultimate way to give back to the community by helping people that are sick and people that are not feeling well. You’re able to care for them while you bring them to the hospital, whether it’s a trauma injury or a medical emergency,” he said.

May 25 to 31 is Canadian EMS Week, a country-wide nod to medical personnel who provide life-saving services on the front line.

In Fort Smith, the EMS crew is entirely volunteer with both emergency medical responders and ambulance drivers on the team.

EMS staff short handed

According to Bird, the Town of Fort Smith is facing a serious shortage of EMS staff that has current members stretched to their limits.

“We’ve had volunteer numbers go up and down with interest and right now we’re in one of those low dips. We have about eight members right now and with people’s jobs and schedules, sometimes that goes down to three or four,” he said.

“It’s quite taxing on the members,” Bird said. “Ideally we’d have 15 to be able to work with people’s schedules.”

When he started three years ago there were 20 people on the EMS team, which meant each member was on call for a “comfortable” one in every five weeks. With only three or four responders, Bird is almost always on call.

“There doesn’t seem to be a day off,” he said, citing an average of around 35 to 40 calls a month with some days completely silent and others with multiple calls.

The staff shortage is not for any specific reason, Bird said. Over the last year, the crew has lost several members, some moving away from the community and others who, for one reason or another, can no longer make the commitment.

“We’ve been replacing them with one here and one there, but we’re losing them faster than we are getting them,” he said.

The job itself is not for everyone, Bird admitted, but the most common concern about dealing with “blood and guts” is not something the EMS staff see regularly.

While EMS staff operate under the purview of the town, Bird said he, along with co-coordinator Tony Jones, do their own recruiting mainly through word of mouth.

Because of the seriousness of the shortage, Bird said they are starting to throw around ideas on how to step up recruiting efforts in the community.

One idea is to hold an open house at the local health care centre to encourage the town to come out and support EMS staff.

Another idea comes from Hay River where the fire department and EMS work jointly, with volunteer staff trained to operate as both firefighters and emergency medical responders.

“We see what the (Fort Smith) fire department does (for recruiting) and they seem to have a lot of people gravitate to them,” Bird said. The fire department currently has around 18 members.

While EMS responds to 250 to 300 calls a year in Fort Smith, the fire department averages 40 to 50 calls a year.

Shortage a territorial concern: Mayor

Fort Smith Mayor Brad Brake, who served on the EMS team in the early 2000s, said the problem is not limited to Fort Smith, but is territorial.

Brake said he brought forward the town’s concerns about emergency staff shortages at the annual general meeting of the NWT Association of Communities in Inuvik in early May. Several other communities agreed they had “issues” with EMS shortages, he said.

According to Brake, the solution should come from the territorial government.

“There should be a territorial ambulance service. It should be run by the territorial government, it should be maintained by the territorial government and it should have employed emergency medical technicians,” he said.

Brake said his request for the GNWT to assume responsibility was initially declined, but he considers that only the “first of many conversations to come.”

Until then, Brake said the town will be brainstorming ways to bolster volunteer recruitment and give some relief to the current members facing burnout.

For more information about Canadian EMS Week, visit https://www.facebook.com/emsweek

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