Small-town emergency responders face recruitment challenges

By Patricia Middleton
McPherson Sentinel – March 30, 2017

Small towns often rely on a team of volunteers to staff around-the-clock emergency medical services. Finding volunteers who live near enough and have the time to cover shifts can be a challenge for EMS departments.

“A lot of smaller communities are losing their transport services,” said Linda Johnson, assistant director of Marquette EMS. “To me, it’s essential.”

Marquette’s EMS service covers a large rural area, including Kanopolis Lake.

“We have a 20 minute response time,” Johnson said. “If you’re adding another 20 minutes from Lindsborg, McPherson or Ellsworth, that’s a long time to wait.”

Volunteers are required to live close enough to the EMS station so they can respond to calls quickly.

“We carry pagers and when the pager goes off, you have five minutes to be dressed and at the EMS building,” Johnson said.

EMS directors work to make their stations as accessible as possible to attract volunteers.

Marquette’s EMS building has a conference room, kitchenette, shower and restrooms, with Wi-Fi and television access. Having those amenities encourages volunteers, as they are able to come and spend their shift at the station if they live farther than five minutes away.

“Right now, all of our techs that are currently active live in town. That’s preferred, but that’s a pretty small population to draw from,” Johnson said.

Kansas regulations require that two personnel be on call 24/7 at every EMS station.

“We have some gaps here and there that we have to figure out how to cover,” Johnson said.

Lindsborg EMS volunteers assist in covering those gaps by reciprocating shifts with Marquette EMS.

“The very last resort is we go out of service and not have transport for that period of time,” Johnson said. “We avoid that at all costs.”

To find new volunteers, EMS departments such as Marquette’s depend largely on word-of-mouth recruiting along with online postings about training opportunities.

“We work through Facebook, some newspaper advertising — our budget’s pretty limited, so a lot of our recruiting is word of mouth,” Johnson said.

Marquette EMS volunteers earn a stipend of $1 per hour on call during weekdays and $2 per hour during weekends.

“I have one tech that takes enough hours to make her car payment,” Johnson said.

Volunteers can take emergency medical technician classes through Hutchinson Community College or Lindsborg Hospital. Classes are usually held two nights a week for a semester.

“When we’re recruiting people, sometimes getting them through the class is the challenge,” Johnson said.

If individuals can attend the classes, Marquette EMS will pay the fees, provided the student commits to work shifts for at least 20 hours per month.

There will also be an emergency medical responder class held on Saturdays this summer in Marquette, where Lindsborg EMS Director Chris Matthews will provide training for volunteers to become secondary responders.

“We’re hoping to recruit some people for that,” Johnson said.

EMS personnel have to deal with individuals in medical, emotional and mental crisis in extreme environments.

“You have to be able to tolerate a lot,” said Vida Mann of Canton EMS.

Volunteers must be able to remain calm in the face of traumatic injuries.

“It takes a special kind of person to do it,” Johnson said.

In her 23 years of experience with EMS, there has never been a time when the department did not need more volunteers, Johnson said.

“There’s a lot of attrition, people moving in and out,” Johnson said.

Volunteers also leave to become professional emergency medical technicians, decide the stress of the job is not for them or become too old to handle the physical strain.

“A long-term career in EMS is not easy,” Mann said. “It’s hard on a body. The older you get, the harder it is to do. The lack of sleep can be hard on a body.”

Canton’s EMS building provides volunteers with a room where they can watch TV or access the internet, along with a shower.

“It is hard to find volunteers anymore,” Mann said. “Life is busy anymore — family comes first to a lot of people and it should.”

Volunteers work in shifts ranging from four to 12 hours long.

“Weekends are harder to fill, especially in the summers when people are traveling,” Mann said. “I think you can find volunteer EMS struggling throughout the state of Kansas.”

Those interesting in serving as EMS volunteers must be 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license, a clean driving record, no felonies and be physically fit. Volunteers can start EMT training at 17 years old.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but we’ll go as long as we can,” Johnson said.

For more information about volunteering with Marquette EMS, contact Linda Johnson at 785-826-5544, Marquette EMS Director Jim Unruh at 785-546-2051 or message the department on Facebook. To learn about volunteering with Canton EMS, contact Vida Mann at 620-245-1430. Other departments in McPherson County may also be in need, contact your local EMS for more information.


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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