A call to serve: New EMS volunteers needed to keep all area ambulance services going

EMT Class offered beginning in January at NICC Waukon Center

by Lissa Blake

(Editor’s Note: This feature article is the fourth and final in a multi-part series addressing the need for additional Emergency Medical Services personnel in Allamakee County.)

Most people would agree that having emergency medical services (EMS) available to any community is essential. But until the Iowa State Legislature changes the law, ambulance services across the state will likely continue to struggle.

“Fire departments and law enforcement are considered essential and cities and townships have to provide those. In the rules for EMS, they may provide the service,” said Jeff Mitchell of Waterville. “The Iowa EMS Association has been working dramatically to try to get that changed, but at this time, they haven’t succeeded.”

Mitchell, who is the assistant fire chief for the Waterville volunteer fire department and president of the Waterville Ambulance volunteer department, has been answering emergency calls since Waterville first formed an ambulance service in 1978. “I’m one of three people who have been here since the beginning,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said he worries about the aging population of his organization’s volunteers, which number around 14.

“We are strictly a volunteer service and it is getting tougher and tougher (to main volunteers) with the stipulation put on everyone to maintain continuing education,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said while Allamakee County does an excellent job at providing continuing education at a reasonable cost, “it still takes a day away from your family life or your business or whatever,” he said.

Mitchell added because Waterville is sort of a “bedroom community,” it gets harder and harder to find people available to answer calls during the business day.

“That’s why many of the volunteers are getting up there in age… because we’re the ones who are available,” he said, adding the organization does have an agreement with Veterans Memorial Hospital in Waukon that its ambulance will come out if no one from Waterville is available.

Mitchell said in order to volunteer, someone must live within the district. Often volunteers who live at the edges of the boundary are given a first responder bag, so they can go directly to emergencies from home.

“That way they can get there before the ambulance and start care,” he said.

Mitchell added Waterville Ambulance Service is willing to reimburse volunteers for their full training after they have spent a year with the service.

Becky Benzing, a 25-year volunteer with the Harpers Ferry ambulance service said her organization answers calls in three different townships - Taylor, Fairview and Lafayette - with just 11 volunteers.

“We average about 50 calls per year and our biggest challenge is having enough members… half the people on our squad regularly go on calls, so the majority are falling on the same people - whoever is available,” she said.

Benzing said because Harpers Ferry has such a difficult time finding people to respond during the day, Harpers Ferry also has an agreement set up with Veterans Memorial Hospital to answer any calls that come in from 7 a.m.-5 p.m.

“If we don’t need them, we can just call them off,” she said.

She said like any small community, they struggle with having enough volunteers to cover the calls around the clock. “I think our newest volunteer has been here for three years. It’s quite a commitment, to be willing to drop everything to answer a call,” she said.

She said Harpers Ferry will pay the full cost of tuition, with no requirement for length of service. “We kind of go on a handshake. That’s been very successful, for the most part,” she said.

She added another key to her organization’s success is working together. “Five of our EMTs are also firemen. We’ll page them out and ask for help. We couldn’t do it without the fire department,” she added.

“But we’re always looking for new members who understand the commitment… It’s important to all of us that Harpers has an ambulance. We work together and have become like a family, and we really appreciate all the support the community gives us,” she concluded.

Paul Whalen, a volunteer with the New Albin ambulance service, said he hopes younger people will start stepping up to fill the shoes of older volunteers who won’t be able to serve forever.

“Just an awareness of how important it is, as well as the need for the next generation to step forward to fill the shoes of the last generation,” said Whalen. “I know this problem is not just isolated to our area, it’s a national issue being faced by a lot of departments across the country. It’s a mindset that hopefully will change.”

New Albin currently has seven EMTs whose average age is 47. “Over half of us are over 50. Some guys do fire and ambulance,” Whalen said. Whalen said he tries to impress upon his own children to find their purpose and to “dig deeper.”

“We have volunteers who were on the crew for 30 or 40 years before me. Those people were my role models … Now we have four to six guys who get a call at 2 or 3 a.m. and they go. What happens when they’re gone?” he asked.

He said until the younger generation realizes the importance of this type of volunteerism, it will continue to be an issue. “They need to realize, ‘It’s not all about me.’ It’s ‘What can I do for other people?’ We’re kind of losing that… not just in New Albin, but nationwide,” he lamented.

Whalen said although going through the training and signing on as a volunteer is a huge commitment, he hopes more people will consider the idea.

When asked if there are parts of the job people find difficult, he said they need volunteers who are willing to take on a variety of tasks, even if they’re not comfortable with all of them.

“It’s just like basketball. Not everyone is going to be a rebounder, point guard or defender, but each player is just as important,” he said.

Whalen noted it was his uncle and a collection of his friends who first saw the need for New Albin to have its own service, following an accident south of town, where the people involved in the accident had to wait for up to two hours for an ambulance to come from La Crosse, WI.

“That accident prompted them to get their first van or station wagon to serve the community… It’s volunteers like these that make small communities great… so we all need to step forward,” he said.

Whalen added people need to realize that even if they don’t specifically utilize the fire department or ambulance, they probably know a family member, neighbor or friend who has been helped by one of those services.

“When people ask why we do it, it’s because there is obviously a need there, and the majority of people are very appreciative. That’s why I do it. It needs to be done… We all make sacrifices and you have to be committed. But in the bigger picture, we all have a purpose. That’s what we’re here for: to serve others,” he said.

Whalen said when he was young, he never even considered the emergency field.

“But if I knew then what I know now… I know everyone is different. Not everyone can handle it. But I would encourage whoever might want to give it a try to give it a try,” he said. “We need the younger generation to step up and lead… Give it a shot. We’ll cover the tab if you want to do the training.”

With regard to older people who may be concerned about how many years they might be able to give to volunteering, Whalen said, “It’s not how many years you give, it’s being dedicated for the years you can give.”

In an effort to fill a countywide shortage, Northeast Iowa Community College in Waukon is offering a class, beginning in January. The overall class is 132 hours, or 34 sessions, held Mondays and Thursdays from 6-10 p.m.

Anyone interested in attending the EMT class to help serve any of the Allamakee County communities should contact Northeast Iowa Community College at 800-728-2256. Orientation for the class is Monday, January 7 and the class begins Monday, January 14.

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