Struggling to find volunteers

As small towns get smaller, finding enough volunteers to staff emergency medical services becomes more of a challenge.

In Gowrie, Callender, and other small towns, numbers are down from past years. Not only that, but fewer and fewer people are available to respond to calls during the daytime.

“That’s true for all of our towns. We all seem to have that same difficulty finding volunteers,” said Terry Towne.

Towne is director of the Southwest Webster Ambulance service, which supports Callender, Gowrie and Harcourt and the surrounding townships.

In Gowrie, Emergency Medical Technicians have dropped from 18 last year to only 12 now. And during the day, when most people work out of town, there are only about five volunteers available.

Training expenses are also on the rise.

“Even if the people were there, the expense makes it almost prohibitive to train that many people,” said Towne. “And the state continues to change the requirements, for what is needed, and add more hours.”

Things are tougher in Callender, where even fewer volunteers work in town, said Fire Chief Kevin Kruse.

There are 13 firefighters, who also serve as emergency medical responders; this is down from the usual 17, Kruse said. During the day, the number of volunteers in town is more like one or two.

“The ones that work in Fort Dodge, there’s no way. They’d never make it in time. … I’m working different hours, so I’m usually around in mornings, sometimes afternoons,” he said.

Kruse is a lieutenant with the Webster County Sheriff’s Department.

“The city man’s an EMT also, so he’s around once in a while. It depends on what he’s doing,” he said. “Daytime for fires or medical is just a tough situation.”

Callender doesn’t have an ambulance service; responders just provide whatever aid they can while waiting for the Southwest Webster Ambulance service or for the Trinity Regional Medical Center ambulance.

Departments also must convince volunteers to complete the needed training for no pay.

“To be an EMT, the first level is going to take probably six to eight months to complete,” said Jeff Vosberg, assistant fire chief and EMS co-coordinator in Farnhamville. “It’s putting yourself out there and doing these classes, being away from your family. That’s difficult to ask people to do.”

Farnhamville has close to 30 firefighters, he said, but only about nine or 10 EMS responders. There’s a core group of about two or three who can respond quickly during the day.

“We have to be diligent,” Vosberg said. “We watch and make sure the staffing is there.”

Vosberg’s department covers Rinard, Somers, Farnhamville and several townships in Calhoun County, along with a few sections of Webster and Greene counties.

Elsewhere in Calhoun County, at least one town has lost its local ambulance service entirely.

“There are no EMTs in Pomeroy any longer,” said Kerrie Hull, Calhoun County Emergency Medical Services coordinator. “We used to have an ambulance service, and our last EMT moved to Illinois about three years ago. I’ve tried to get some emergency medical responders and just have not been able to do that.”

Pomeroy is covered by the volunteer department in Manson and the Calhoun County EMS in Rockwell City.

The county service was created in 2007 to help struggling volunteer organizations, Hull said. It employs 14 paid staff, including four who work full time.

Between that department and Stewart Memorial Community Hospital in Lake City, the whole county has paramedic coverage, Hull said. One of those two is simultaneously dispatched when the small-town ambulances are called out.

“If they need a paramedic, then we’re that much closer by the time they get there and determine they need one. If they don’t, they call us up, and we turn around and go home,” she said.

Still, those first-on-the-scene responders are vitally important.

“It would be nice to be able to have at least emergency medical responders in each community, that can respond right away, but it’s difficult finding volunteers to do that,” she said.

The county service also helps with paperwork and regulation, and provides training and equipment for the smaller volunteer services.

Other counties throughout the state operate a countywide service, Hull said, such as Sac County and Carroll County.

Being an EMT can require inconvenient hours, Towne said, and the work is sometimes draining. Some people may be fearful of what kind of calls come up.

“There have been some calls that have been very difficult to get around, and sometimes that ends up costing us an EMT,” Towne said. “You can train and train and train, but some of those calls just get the best of you.”

After all, in a small town, an EMT likely knows 90 percent of the people he or she will have to pick up.

“That can be hard to deal with,” she said. “I was on a call one time that ended up being my dad. That was one I had to step away from.”

There’s a need to teach people at a younger age the importance of volunteering, said Gowrie Fire Chief Greg Benson.

“If they volunteer to do small things in high school and college, then when get back here they’ll volunteer for us,” Benson said. “There’s so many people that go through their whole life and never volunteer for anything. I guess they don’t want to take the time, or they don’t understand the rewards.”

“I don’t care if it’s volunteering for the fire department, the EMS service or Red Cross, or to clean up the ditches or something. If everyone would do something, would be a better world.”