'A beacon of hope': New Yukon EMS unit focuses on substance use crisis

Jeff Bell, a superintendent at Yukon EMS, stands next to a black SUV that's part of the new paramedic response unit. His job is to assign himself to non-emergency calls and, when it's not busy, to go out into Whitehorse's neighbourhoods and educate the public on safe drug consumption and testing.  (Anna Desmarais/CBC  - image credit)
Jeff Bell, a superintendent at Yukon EMS, stands next to a black SUV that's part of the new paramedic response unit. His job is to assign himself to non-emergency calls and, when it's not busy, to go out into Whitehorse's neighbourhoods and educate the public on safe drug consumption and testing. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)

Jeff Bell gets ready for his paramedic shift in Whitehorse by loading fentanyl test strips and withdrawal management equipment, alongside a traditional first aid kit, into the back of a black SUV.

Bell, a superintendent with Yukon EMS, is one of the paramedics now assigned to the paramedic response unit — a new pilot project to respond to the ongoing substance use crisis in the territory.

"We're hoping that this vehicle is ... a beacon of hope in the community," Bell said.

During his shift, Bell could assign himself to respond to non-emergency calls for patients dealing with withdrawal or overdoses.

He can direct patients to places like a detox centre or the city's emergency shelter instead of the emergency room if the cases aren't severe — something he says takes pressure off the territory's main hospital.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

If there are no calls coming in, Bell will head out into Whitehorse's different neighbuorhoods to teach Yukoners how to safely consume and test their drugs.

"We know that opiates are not just in the downtown core — they're not just tied to a certain subset of the population," he said.

The new EMS program is the latest effort by the territory to address substance use.

The Yukon government declared a substance use emergency in January after a string of overdose deaths took place in the first three weeks of the year.

The deaths of 21 people have been tied to toxic illicit drugs this year, according to the latest numbers from the Yukon's chief coroner. Sixteen of these deaths involved opioids.

Bell said he's an ideal person to do this job because he knows first-hand how addiction is an illness.

"I have had addiction in my family, and I know how it destroys ... people," Bell said. "Drug use isn't going away.

"Until more initiatives like this are brought forward, we're not going to get a handle on it."

Paul Tukker/CBC
Paul Tukker/CBC

'Our goal is to save lives'

Ryan Soucy, the deputy chief of clinical operations at Yukon EMS, said the new program is unique to the Yukon.

"There is mobile testing in other areas of the country, but we are the only paramedic service that I know of that's actually embedding it into EMS," said Soucy, who's worked in EMS units throughout the country over 22 years.

To join the new unit, paramedics go through 100 hours of online training, Soucy said.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

The training teaches them how to meet the specific healthcare needs of clients they might meet in the field and how to respond to conditions like overdose and withdrawal.

It goes well beyond that too, Soucy said, by also including lessons on seniors and how to help those aging in place.

Paramedics also learn how to use equipment like narcan spray and spectrometers so they know how to specifically respond to overdoses.

"Our whole goal is to remove barriers that exist for people to access these sort of services," Soucy said. "Our goal is to save lives."

The project will be running for at least a year and a half, Soucy said, but he hopes it will be extended "indefinitely."