Staffing shortages plague first responders in rural Minnesota, Wisconsin

Published: Feb. 15, 2022 at 4:32 PM CST
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COOK, MN., and MARENGO, WI. (KBJR) - When emergency strikes, you call 911 and wait for someone to show up, but how long you wait could mean the difference between life and death.

Waiting is exactly what people in small communities are having to do more of.

Cook, Minnesota, has a population of 562.

Like many emergency medical services (EMS) in rural America, its ambulance is staffed with volunteers.

Karen Schultz is the Interim Director of Cook Area Ambulance Service.

“If that pager goes off we just can’t roll over,” Schultz said. “We have to go. It’s one of our loved ones.”

They have around 20 volunteers, which is a number not meeting the demand.

“I mean there are times in the schedule where we have maybe one person on,” Schultz said. “There are times in the schedule I don’t have anybody on. It’s sad. It really is.”

The town of Marengo, Wisconsin, is even smaller. It has a population of 392.

Kurt Blakeman is Marengo Ambulance Service’s Assistant Director.

Their ambulance service has 10 volunteers.

The majority of their volunteers work other full-time jobs before or after their shift with the ambulance begins.

“When the calls come in we just hope that there are guys available,” Blakeman said. “Oftentimes our day shifts are left open or uncovered. Sometimes the first page doesn’t get fulfilled they page out again.”

Since Blakeman helped start the town’s volunteer ambulance service one year ago, he has seen a drop in volunteers.

“I would say we’re always looking for more volunteers and I think that’s kind of the consensus around the country,” he said. “There are less and less volunteers as time goes on.”

Despite the drop in people wanting to cover open shifts, Blakeman does not think they have a better alternative right now.

“Our township has few taxpayers, not very many businesses, and not a lot of revenue coming in,” he said. “For us to have a full-time service on our own would be nearly impossible to pay.”

Cook’s volunteer emergency responders get paid $3 to $4 an hour when on call.

Marengo pays $1 an hour.

Both towns pay more when volunteers get sent out.

Blakeman said volunteers are not doing it for the money, but they are in desperate need of more help.

“The reason why people are volunteering isn’t for the money,” he said. “It’s something that they feel that ‘I need to help. I feel like I’m needed here. I am part of this service.’”

When they can’t respond, the pager goes out to neighboring towns.

“I don’t think anyone really thinks that if I call, there’s a chance that nobody is going to show up, but it’s not unrealistic,” Blakeman said.

Both Schultz’s and Blakeman’s teams have mutual aid agreements with surrounding cities and have to utilize them regularly.

“Just this month alone I’ve had to reach out to Orr four times because I didn’t have staff,” Schultz said.

Because of mutual aid agreements, someone will eventually come, but that increases the wait time.

According to the National Rural Health Association, EMS total call times in rural parts of the country are nearly 30 percent higher than in urban areas.

“Time is everything,” Schultz said. “It seriously it is. A couple of minutes could mean life or death.”

Some contributing factors to that statistic include rural areas having more ground to cover and fewer available people.

“I think the biggest thing about rural EMS and what needs to happen is that something needs to happen,” said Mark Jones, Executive Director of Minnesota Rural Health Association.

Jones said the pandemic sped up healthcare worker retirements during a time when the need is trending up.

“Our rural communities are getting older,” he said. “The demand on our rural ambulance service will continue to increase as those 65 and older population continues to grow.”

Minnesota Rural Health Association is working with state and federal lawmakers to provide ambulance services with more funding, training, and scholarships.

“We need to really work in our industry to rightsize the industry in rural Minnesota and rural America for all that’s worth,” Jones said.

Jones said some communities have embraced the volunteer method for too long, but in order for change to happen, it needs to be addressed on the local level.

“Maybe the development of a strong EMS system starts locally, and locally we identify what level of service we desire, what is needed in our community, and then what that costs, and what we as taxpayers are willing to support,” he said.

When you call 911, you expect someone to come, but now those who normally answer the call are asking for someone to come to their rescue.

“Volunteers are getting less and less,” Blakeman said. “What are we going to do in the future? Are we just going to hope that they keep showing up? We can see the trend. It’s not changing. We can hold on as long as we can, but at some point, we need to come together and say ‘We got to get something bigger going.’”

Blakeman said going without service is not an option.

“These are our people in this township,” he said. “I think it’s up to us to help serve them. That’s what we do.”

Both Schultz and Blakeman are working within their communities to recruit volunteers and advocate for more funding.

The city of Cook currently pays for 75 percent of the training costs for EMTs if they commit to two years of service with the ambulance.

Click here to learn more about Cook’s emergency services.

Click here to learn more about Marengo’s emergency services.

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