Outside of Canada’s larger towns and cities, volunteers play a central role in providing EMS and firefighting services. It’s a matter of economics: There just isn’t enough money in this country’s smaller communities and rural areas to pay professional EMS technicians and firefighters.
Historically the Canadian volunteers who provide EMS services either directly as certified (and trained) emergency medical responders or firefighters known as medical first responders have operated in a vacuum. The relative isolation of their small communities in this large, sparsely populated country (once one moves away from the urbanized ocean coastlines and the Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence River corridor) means these volunteers have made do with whatever they had at hand. Unfortunately it is in these isolated area that 70% of Canada’s trauma deaths occur, so the demands on these volunteers are very real.
This isolation is now being ended with the foundation of the EMS Volunteers Association of Canada (EMSVAC). This new group is championing the educational and associational needs of these largely unsung heroes through the website emsvolunteers.ca and pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Claude Bidal is founder and current president of EMSVAC. He has been involved in the volunteer prehospital scene since the early 1990s, when he first joined the Canadian Ski Patrol. He is also an advanced emergency medical care instructor with the Canadian Red Cross and volunteers with a group of specialized scouts known as Medical Venturers, or MedVents.
“The EMS Volunteers Association of Canada is a recently launched association that has been talked about for many years,” says Bidal. “It has the ambitious goal of gathering all volunteer medical first responders for the purposes of networking, sharing lessons learned, and promoting this specialized type of volunteerism. It also aims at supporting its members by ensuring they have access to resources to remain dedicated and motivated and healthy.”
Although only a few months old, EMSVAC already has more than 100 members drawn from most parts of Canada. The only area currently unrepresented in the association is Prince Edward Island, but this will likely change as EMSVAC becomes better known.
As for funding, EMSVAC is paying its own way. “At this stage we very much wanted the association to be by members for members,” Bidal explains. “For this reason we have not solicited sponsors. We are self-funded with a small membership fee that covers our costs. Some members have opted to donate a bit more to ensure the association is off to a good start. In the future we may seek other sources of revenue.”
A Varied Lot
Who are the Canadians who volunteer to provide EMS assistance as a public service to their communities—not just on the roads and in towns but on the ski slopes and at hockey arenas and public gatherings? According to Bidal, they are a varied lot who come from all walks of life.
“Some are full-time paramedics who volunteer on weekends and in the evenings. A significant number are volunteer firefighters who are cross-trained as medical first responders,” he says. “Then we have other professionals: engineers, doctors, and lawyers who want to give back to their community in a manner that’s more concrete then simply giving a financial contribution to a cause. Some volunteers are also doing this for personal interests: to be able to take care of a family member and know what to do if an emergency should occur.”
Providing these motivated volunteers with an online community where they can share knowledge, support each other, and attract new volunteers is what EMSVAC is all about. “Paramedicine is a rapidly evolving field,” says Bidal. “It’s important for EMS volunteers to stay abreast of changes, but that’s often difficult due to the lack of local resources and distances required to attend classes, not to mention the cost.”
EMSVAC is finding solutions to provide continuing education to members so they can stay current and continue to refresh/augment their knowledge, he adds: “Hopefully this will have a trickle-down effect, and our members in turn will bring that knowledge back at the local service level as well.”
A further benefit of EMSVAC will be to raise the profile of EMS volunteers in Canada, where they are nearly invisible. “There is a general lack of understanding as to the role we play in Canadian society,” Bidal explains. “We shoulder part of this blame, as we have not done a very good job at promoting ourselves and the work we do, but there’s also a general perception that something truly important would be remunerated and require full-time professionals.”
The founding of EMSVAC certainly fills a gap for Canada’s EMS volunteers, who take their important contributions to public health and safety very seriously.
“We see ourselves as professionals, just the unpaid kind,” says Bidal. “Just as volunteers are currently saving Canadian lives, the opposite would be true without them: Lives would be lost.”
James Careless is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to EMS World.