For the past five years, the Sahtu hamlet of Tulita’s fire chief has been using an old suburban as the community’s ambulance.
Tim Tomczynski, who is also the hamlet’s acting senior administrator, said: “It worked, but it was very hard to fit everything you would need for a medical call plus a stretcher.”
Then Tomczynski met Ralph Sanguez, a 21-year veteran of Hay River’s fire department, at a training course. Tomczynski showed Sanguez around his fire hall.
“He says to me, ‘You guys do medical calls here too, right?’” recalled Tomczynski. “And we said, ‘Yeah, of course.’
“When he saw we used an older suburban to do the medical calls, he said, ‘Holy smokes, you guys need something better than that. I might know someone with an ambulance.’
Tomczynski was interested and began thinking about how he might find the money to buy an ambulance.
Sanguez, meanwhile, called the senior administrator in Enterprise, Tammy Neal. After a meeting with councillors, Enterprise produced an ambulance and full suite of state-of-the-art extrication equipment.
“I got a call at 11:30 at night and was told that not only were we getting all this brand new equipment, we were getting it for free,” said Tomczynski.
“I didn’t know what to say or do at that point. That’s not just a proper ambulance with a stretcher and the whole works, it’s brand new extrication equipment, which is so doggone expensive.”
Tomczynski said that among the suite of new tools is a stabilization kit, which stablizes vehicles that are flipped or on their side in as little as 60 seconds so rescuers can safely work to get to people inside. Previously, his fire crew used blocks of wood to prop up vehicles, which would slow rescues by up to 15 minutes and took up valuable space in the medic van.
The new kit also includes battery-operated jaws of life, rescue cutter and rescue ram in addition to the fully outfitted ambulance.
“I just could not believe the generosity of this gift. I was flabbergasted,” Tomczynski said.
“I immediately called Tammy and said on behalf of the Hamlet of Tulita, we are so grateful. Our hamlet council is tickled pink, it’s everything we wanted.”
‘Praying for this’
Tulita’s council had been growing steadily more concerned about the state of its equipment as medical calls increased over the past year. Tulita is expecting a new health centre worth upward of $16 million to be completed later this year, but had no way to get patients to the building besides the van.
While the fire department had jaws of life, the model was outdated and required a time-consuming series of steps. But the fire chief said the cost to replace that type of equipment is “astronomical” and, after the expenses that came with the pandemic, was beginning to feel impossible.
“I was praying for this,” said Tomczynski. “This equipment is just so essential, and it will enable us to work faster when time is critical.”
The new ambulance allows more than one person to fit in the back of the vehicle, which was an issue with the suburban when patients needed continuous CPR. Tomczynski says the vehicle can also function as a cooling centre for firefighters when they need to work in 40-degree summer heat, or as a warming centre in winter.
Neal said Enterprise purchased the equipment as part of an initial plan to become more involved in highway rescue that was never fully realized.
“Our council was more than happy to share what we don’t use with another community who could use it,” she said.
“The community actually had program funding to purchase [the equipment] so that’s another reason council felt it was appropriate to donate it. We had this equipment on our agenda already, so it was kind-of perfect timing.
“I think communities should support each other. They say to keep the circle strong, right?”
Paying it forward
Mayor of Enterprise Michael St Amour was equally modest.
“We didn’t want any recognition. We just wanted it to be put to use. Everybody needs something. I’m happy the GNWT has allowed us to put in place a wellness program to help families with gift cards and food hampers and all that for the past two years,” St Amour told Cabin Radio. “I thought this was a good opportunity to pay it forward.”
For Tomczynski, hearing about the new resources at his disposal was emotional. A former medic for the US Marine Corps, he has experience working in difficult conditions and with limited resources. That didn’t make it any easier to waste precious minutes in an emergency dealing with aging or makeshift equipment.
“It really hit me quite hard. It’s always been such a soft point for me,” he said.
“We want to provide the best possible service we can to the community and to make sure our department operates in a safe way, and to finally get the equipment to be able to do that… there were some tears that came out.
“Words cannot express what we feel and what a wonderful gift this is.”