EMS volunteer numbers dwindle

Staff writer

Interim EMS director JoAnn Knak has a difficult situation on her hands. In what she called an aging community, she has an aging volunteer emergency medical staff.

Between the Marion, Hillsboro, Peabody, and Tampa EMS services, Knak said, there are 14 volunteers, with one leaving soon from the Hillsboro department.

“It’s pretty serious,” Knak said. “We’re losing people to retirement. We really don’t want to hire a full-time ambulance service.”

Knak said she looked into it in 2003 when she was last in the director position, and found it would cost $1.8 million out of the county budget. That number would almost certainly be higher today. The current volunteer service costs the county somewhere around $400,000, Knak said.

“We can get that through our call volume,” she said. “If we had a full-time service, people wouldn’t be able to afford to call the ambulance.”

Knak has tried recently to bump the number up a little by including a 25-cent raise in the hourly on-call wage of her volunteers. Currently, volunteers make $2 per hour on-call, and $25 per call. The county commission will have the final say regarding the raise when it completes the budget.

Knak said the number of volunteers in smaller communities, Tampa and Florence, is OK, given that they receive fewer calls than the larger communities.

But with the number of Marion and Hillsboro volunteers at three (soon to be two in Hillsboro), more help could benefit the community.

“We need enough volunteers to fulfill the needs of the community,” she said. “But we don’t want so many that they never get a call. How many volunteers would it take to saturate it? I don’t know.”

To help fill the void, the EMS department is offering a class that begins Sept. 16. The class has a $585 enrollment fee, with final testing in May. Knak hopes for an enrollment of around 20, though a class size of around 12 is perhaps more likely.

Knak said there are a number of ways to earn back the fee for the class.

“In 2003, Hillsboro would reimburse us for class fees, will they still do that? I don’t know, I haven’t asked,” she said.

She added that working football games and other such events can help to earn back the cost of the fee.

In addition to a lack of volunteers, the EMS department lacks facilities with sleeping quarters. Facilities such as these would allow volunteers to come from out of the area to come work 24-hour shifts on weekends.

“Most of our volunteers have other, full-time jobs,” Knak said.

Full-time jobs and various responsibilities impede on the volunteers’ time. In Florence, of the four volunteers, one volunteer drives to Hillsboro for work every day, one is the Cedar Point postmaster, and one is taking care of an ill parent. Should a call come in during the day between Monday and Friday, the Florence ambulance cannot send out the required two certified responders necessary to complete a patient transport.

Knak is concerned about the lack of volunteers, but knows the community can provide an excellent ambulance service, without having to bring one in at the expense of the county’s budget.

“We’ve got some excellent people here,” Knak said. “I would and have put my own life in their hands. We just need more of them.”

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