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Published August 08, 2011, 12:00 AM

Rural North Dakota EMTs put in long hours

Staffing, funding volunteer ambulance services ongoing challenge
JAMESTOWN, N.D. – It’s been a tough five years for LaMoure resident Connie Willey.

By: Katie Ryan-Anderson, Forum Communications Co., INFORUM

JAMESTOWN, N.D. – It’s been a tough five years for LaMoure resident Connie Willey.

She’s served her community as an emergency medical technician for 20 years, but due to changing times, insufficient funds and not enough hours in the day, the number of emergency volunteers have shrunk in LaMoure, leaving Willey and two others to cover most of the 60 12-hour ambulance shifts each month for the last five years or so. Willey is president of the Community Volunteer EMS Service of LaMoure.

Of the 60 shifts per month, Willey said she covers 40 to 50 of them.

“I’m the only one available during the day, basically,” she said, saying other volunteer EMTs work outside of LaMoure city limits, meaning they’re too far away to respond to a call in time. “If I’m not here, it gets to be a big problem.”

Staffing volunteer ambulance services is a problem statewide, said Curt Halmrast, president of the North Dakota EMS Association. Halmrast serves on the ambulance service in Oakes. Halmrast said several factors contribute to the problem, including reimbursement for volunteers and ambulance programs as well as training requirements, and aging and shrinking populations in rural areas.

“We’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time, but we’re dealing with a crisis right now,” Halmrast said.

Of the 143 ambulance services in North Dakota, 14 of them respond to 50,000 calls per year, Halmrast said, whereas 120 crews respond to a combined 10,000 calls per year.

Jamestown’s ambulance service is one of the bigger 14 and is operated by a private company, Ringdahl EMS. It’s staffed with full-time crews as opposed to volunteer crews as in rural communities, said Nancy Miller, business manager for Jamestown Area Ambulance.

LaMoure’s volunteer crew, for example, re­sponds to about 100 calls per year, Willey said. But to break even financially, an ambulance service must respond to more than 650 calls per year, Halmrast said, saying it costs about $840 for each call, but the average reimbursement rate is about $650.

“Every time we roll out the door, we lose money,” Halmrast said.

To recoup costs, ambulance services ask their local jurisdictions for subsidies and hold bake sales and other fundraisers, said Mike Sandy, manager of the ambulance service in Oakes.

A bake sale in LaMoure garnered about $1,000 for the crew there, Willey said, saying the town supports the service. Not everyone is willing to volunteer, but her employer, LaMoure Drug Store, allows her to leave for calls as needed.

Ringdahl Ambulance in partnership with Emergency Training Associates is offering to train emergency response crews in their own communities, to reduce travel time and increase convenience to rural ambulance crews.

“You train them locally, and maybe they’ll stay there locally,” said Randy Fischer, operations manager for Ringdahl EMS in Minnesota and North Dakota.

P.J. Hardy is one of the locally grown EMTs at Jamestown Area Ambulance. Hardy originally went to a four-year college to earn a teaching degree but changed her mind when she joined the ambulance service for part-time work. Today, she’s the basic life support coordinator for Jamestown Area Ambulance.

“It’s pretty powerful to know that someone is calling you for help,” Hardy said. ... “It’s a pretty good feeling. It kind of makes you want to come back for more.”


Katie Ryan-Anderson writes for the Jamestown Sun

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