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Volunteers make EMS possible in rural Wyoming, but numbers are dwindling

An ambulance staffed a team of experienced first-responders can make a world of difference in an emergency. This is especially true in rural Wyoming, where the hospital can be an hour away or more. What many people don’t realize is that most of Wyoming’s Emergency Medical Services – or EMS – workers are volunteers, and their numbers are dwindling. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez filed this report.

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Gard Ferguson has been a first responder in Washakie County for two decades. The Worland resident remembers his first call – before officially joining any force. His mother-in-law was an emergency medical technician for the ambulance service in Tensleep, and invited him to help respond to a call at Meadowlark Lake in the middle of the night. A man there was in cardiac arrest.

GARD FERGUSON: I went up and helped and did CPR on a gentleman for three hours. (walkie-talkie) Yeah, it’s a long way from the top of the mountain to the hospital.

MARTINEZ: Now, Ferguson is the Assistant Ambulance Director for Washakie County. He’s a volunteer EMT in Worland, and has to keep the town’s ambulance with him half the time, ready at any moment to respond to a call. He’s also the ambulance Director for the Tensleep Ambulance Service, 30 miles away.

FERGUSON: I’m a… some people call it a trauma junkie. (Belly laugh)

MARTINEZ: Ferguson says the Tensleep EMS crew has 10 volunteers, and Worland has 20, give or take. He says they’re all compassionate people who work around their day jobs to help their neighbors. They respond to senior citizens who’ve fallen and can’t get up. They care for diabetic patients or people suffering heart attacks on the way to a nearby hospital. They hike into remote mountain areas near Tensleep to rescue victims of rock climbing falls and hunting accidents. And it’s all handled with carefully regulated medical professionalism.

FERGUSON: We can’t talk about what we do, though, because of the HIPA violations and things like that, so people don’t know what we do.

MARTINEZ: But professionals in the state are saying it’s time more people know about the work EMS volunteers do and to support them before communities lose them.

As Baby Boomers age and Wyomingites live longer, EMS professionals have more work on their hands.  The Wyoming Department of Health says that state EMS personnel have seen a 28-percent increase in emergency calls over the last 6 years.

State E-M-S Administrator Andy Gienapp says when E-M-S jobs became common in the 1970s, their main responsibility was to transport patients to the hospital. Gienapp says a lot has changed…

ANDY GIENAPP: At all the levels of providers – EMT, or intermediate or paramedic – we expect them to take interventions and provide appropriate treatment for the patient that they find. And in some areas, that care becomes very complex and we do expect them to make judgments based on their training and their level of expertise.

MARTINEZ: Gienapp points out that 70 percent of Wyoming’s E-M-S professionals are unpaid volunteers, who maintain jobs outside their demanding rescue work.  For the last few years, the Wyoming Legislature has approved funding to help reimburse EMT instructors – Gienapp says it comes out to about 4-dollars an hour – but the number of volunteers isn’t increasing to meet demand. In fact, EMT training and testing class sizes have shrunk in some parts of the state. Many attribute it to time constraints, balancing work, family, and longer EMS training classes.

Emergency healthcare is even more difficult in a place like Baggs, where their local healthcare center closed suddenly in March. Baggs Mayor Kathy Staman says senior citizens no longer have a place where they can get regular checkups and treatments, and it’s difficult for them to get to the nearest hospitals.

KATHY STAMAN: The emergency medical services in Baggs have been a huge part of bags because we are so remote. We’re about 38 miles from Craig Colorado and about 76 miles from Rawlins, Wyoming.

MARTINEZ: The burden now falls on the Little Snake River Rural Health District to address these issues and emergencies. Although the district has levied taxes to reimburse the EMS volunteers, it’s not much. Volunteers are offered about three-dollars per hour if they’re on-call, and 45-dollars per ambulance run. Long time EMT Sue Lee says it’s not enough to lure more volunteers.

SUE LEE: We’re not doing it for the money. And even if we weren’t getting paid, that’s not why we do it. We’re doing it to help the people and, you know, respond when we can.

MARTINEZ: Lee says the EMS work in the area is stressful, because they respond to serious traffic crashes and accidents in nearby oil fields, and without a local clinic, calls take longer, because they have to transport patients even further. Plus, the EMTs still have to work around families and full-time jobs.

She says that the volunteer EMS model is “a thing of the past” in Baggs and worries that the number of certified EMTs in the area will fizzle out without a real wage.

LEE: I don’t ever want to quit the EMS because of not enough EMTs, but it’s also called burnout. And when you only have 3 or 4 EMTs that are constantly responding, you’re just exhausted from trying to be on every single call and trying to be around for everything, and there’s just times when… when you can’t.

MARTINEZ: State E-M-S Administrator Andy Gienapp says many rural areas in the state simply can’t afford full-time EMTs, especially if they rely on patient fees for transport to cover wages and equipment. Instead, he thinks more localities, residents and legislators need to work together to strengthen support for EMS volunteers around the state. Gienapp’s office is looking at solutions to the problem.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.

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