A call to serve: Postville Emergency Medical Services could always use more good help

EMT Class offered beginning in January at NICC Waukon Center

by Lissa Blake

(Editor’s Note: This feature on the Postville Emergency Medical Services (EMS) program is the third in a multi-part series addressing the need for additional Emergency Medical Services personnel in Allamakee County. Additional area communities will be featured in subsequent articles.)

Most people take for granted that when they call for an ambulance, someone will always answer that call.

But to keep an ambulance service going, it takes a lot of resources - many of those human.

“I just had no idea what it took to be a volunteer in the EMS (Emergency Medical Services) world until someone recruited me,” said Mindy Koenig of Luana.

Koenig serves as office manager for Area Ambulance Service (AAS), which covers Postville and Clermont. Before being hired to take care of scheduling, billing and state reporting, she worked as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) herself for nine years. She said Postville is fortunate to have a about a dozen people who sign up for “call weeks” right now, but AAS could always use more.

“Our volunteers sign up for call weeks that run from Friday at 6 p.m. until the next Friday at 6 p.m. These people are on call during that week, 24/7. We have either two or three people on call at a time,” said Koenig.

Koenig said while no one gets paid to be on call, volunteers who actually respond to a call get paid a stipend.

“We do a five-week rotation and have a total of 17 EMTs (emergency medical technicians), one paramedic and four drivers,” she said.

Although volunteers who sign up for call are required to live within five to 10 minutes of the station, AAS does have some volunteers who respond to calls regularly, but just don’t sign up for call week.

Koenig said for the last few years, AAS has answered about 160 calls a year. “We also average about 35 no-transports, where we are called to a lift assist or car accidents where people don’t need attention,” she said.

She added scheduling can be a challenge, as most of the EMTs work out of town.  “Our paramedic works for another ambulance service, one guy works nights, one lady works for a local doctor and a couple people work for Hall Roberts, who are wonderful about letting their employees answer calls,” said Koenig.

Koenig said even if people can’t commit to being on call, there are some flexible situations, where, for example, someone works nights and can attend the day calls. “We’re fortunate to have some really good people. Days can be tough (to cover) but we seem to make it work,” she said.

She said although they do a pretty good job of covering the shifts, the service is always on the lookout for people who might want to join.

“People get burnt out, or people who have families get overwhelmed with those responsibilities… there are so many different scenarios, we probably lose one to two people a year. We have to keep people coming in,” she said.

Koenig said volunteering can be tough in a small town, especially when your chances of knowing the people you’re helping is very good; however, she said the work is “absolutely rewarding.”

“It’s always wonderful when a few weeks or a few months down the road, someone contacts you and says ‘Thanks so much for being there for me the other day.’ That makes it worth it,” she said.

Koenig added she is proud of her son, Dominick Schnuelle, who is the assistant fire chief and also an AAS driver, for the work he does as well.

“My son and I talk about how, after you’ve done this work, you look at life differently. I never used to think about all of the things that could happen… It changes your mindframe,” she said. “No one really understands… we need to educate our younger generation.”

Koenig explained when the service is short on volunteers, they can fall back on a contract with Veterans Memorial Hospital in Waukon.

“If, during the day, Monday through Friday, we can’t respond by the second page, then they’re called out, for a back-up,” she said.

Area Ambulance Service is a private non-profit with a board of directors, and donations are tax deductible.

“We bought our last ambulance with donations and memorials. People sometimes pass away and leave money from their estate to us, or donations often come from people who have actually used our service and understand how important it is,” Koenig said. “We’ve been blessed to be able to pay our volunteers when they answer a call and to be able to pay me to organize the service and bill the people we transport… It’s so imperative that we keep our ambulance alive and well.”

In an effort to fill a countywide shortage, Northeast Iowa Community College in Waukon is offering an EMT class, beginning in January. The overall class is 132 hours, or 34 sessions, Mondays and Thursdays from 6-10 p.m. The tuition is $1,239, not including the cost of books and uniforms, which adds approximately $379 to the cost.

People who are willing to commit to three years with AAS will have all costs reimbursed. “Many people can’t afford to just fork out $1,500. We have them sign a three-year contract with us and if they stick with us, their fees are paid for. If they don’t pass the class, drop out or decide to move away within the three years, they have to pay it back,” she said.

Koenig said although it takes someone almost a full year to complete the class, in the end it’s very rewarding.

“It’s not rewarding pay-wise... and it can be very time-consuming... it can interfere with your family life. But it’s amazing how you come around to realizing how important you are to the community. It makes it all worth it,” she concluded.

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