“It’s a matter of life and death”
When longtime Jerauld County EMTs Dick and Ellen Powell requested to meet with county commissioners about the state of the area’s ambulance service, the county leaders had no idea their message would be quite so dire: if more EMTs aren’t added to the roster, Jerauld County may lose its ambulance.
With some working out of town or unable to leave work, just a few EMTs are taking the majority of calls.
“Right now, five to six of the EMTs take 90% of the call,” Ellen explained. “Recently there have been occurrences where nurses at the hospital have had to page the ambulance three times before someone responds.”
An unsustainable formula for such a large coverage area, Dick said that a region as large as Jerauld County would be adequately covered with closer to a dozen active EMTs. And looking to another community’s ambulance service isn’t an option.
“If we lose our ambulance there is no guarantee another town’s ambulance service will even pick us up” Dick pointed out.
Commissioners heard the message loud and clear.
“If someone is having a serious health emergency and an ambulance isn’t there, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose them,” Fred Krohmer, county commission chairman said. “There is money in the bank and a new ambulance, but if there is no one to take it out, it doesn’t do any good.”
A volunteer position that is paid per call through insurance and Medicare, EMTs must also live in town or close to Wessington Springs in order to adhere to state guidelines that dictate the ambulance must be out of the garage within 15 minutes. “We have 15 minutes to have the wheels turning,” Dick explained.
Commissioners are discussing options to help recruit new volunteers such as providing a loan to take the $800 - $1200 class with loan forgiveness based on a years-of-service model.
“Most take it for granted that it’s always gonna be there,” said county commissioner Ronny Kopfmann. “We need to figure out a way to encourage more to become EMTs.”
As of June 30, 2020, Jerauld County Ambulance has responded to 50 calls: 13 transfers and 37 emergency calls. The Powells said that the number is down slightly from last year but with COVID, all ambulance calls are down across the state.
“It’s a job that has to be done,” Ellen stated matter-of-factly. “But it’s a job that brings a huge amount of satisfaction and provides a very important service to our community.”
In 2019, Jerauld County Ambulance had a total of 141 calls made up of 94 emergency calls, 42 transfers and five stand-by calls. Emergency calls are made up of Wessington Springs Area and Alpena with transfers going to Sioux Falls, Mitchell, Wessington Springs Airport and Huron Airport. Stand-by calls include football games, training and rodeo.
But the tally of calls continue to add up with the number of EMTs decreasing, on the cusp of leaving a terrifying void when it comes to availability of ambulance service.
The required 160-hour course involves class time, CPR and hands-on skills. Some of the classes are offered via video conference and some are conducted online.
Anyone interested in learning more about what it takes to become an EMT or to sign up for the course should contact Ellen or Dick Powell at (605) 539-1201 or any of the commissioners immediately.
At the meeting, Dick and Ellen asked the commissioners to imagine themselves or their loved ones having to wait for an ambulance from another community in an emergency situation.
County commissioner Jeff Messmer quickly summed up the grave situation: “It’s a matter of life and death.”