Local rural communities in jeopardy of losing EMS

Trainee and retention numbers continue to decrease

Allina Health EMS Operations Supervisor Mark Newman, EMT Morgan Chabert, and Owner and Lead Instructor for Southern Minnesota EMS Education Tim Birkemeyer (L-R) stand in front of an EMS ambulance. Birkemeyer said unless EMT and paramedic numbers increase in the next few years, volunteer-based EMS in rural towns may not be able to continue.

NEW ULM — For many rural area towns, such as Lafayette, Springfield, and Lamberton, their volunteer-based EMS services are at risk of shutting down.

Continuously decreasing numbers of EMTs and paramedics, combined with declining training numbers, have seen many local EMS services struggle hand over fist to continue providing necessary emergency services.

Owner and Lead Instructor of Southern Minnesota EMS Education and Lamberton Ambulance Service Director Tim Birkemeyer said there are important distinctions between an EMT and a paramedic.

“A paramedic brings what we call advanced life support to the ambulance, which means they can push all the medications and work almost the same as an RN,” he said. “An EMT is going to be the second level. An EMT is going to have some basic medications that they can provide [and] be trained at a basic life support level. To be a paramedic, you have to be an EMT first.”

Allina Health EMS Operations Supervisor Mark Newman said they are a full-time, paid service. As such, they have been able to continue to maintain proper staffing levels. But in smaller towns, the situation has turned dire.

This class of 31 students stand for a group picture during their first night of EMT training class. Birkemeyer said these students come from all walks of life, and each bring unique skills and mindsets that offer different advantages in their EMT training.

“I look just to the north of us and we have Lafayette, Winthrop, struggling for staff,” he said. “You go to Sleepy Eye, Springfield, and Lamberton. We’re at critical, catastrophic levels of trying to maintain. “Many of these services are at risk of losing the ambulance service.”

Newman said if this occurs, other EMS services like Allina Health’s will need to pick up the slack. Given the travel time to these towns, it could be the difference between life and death.

“If Lafayette or Winthrop doesn’t have an ambulance, where’s the nearest site for them to get an ambulance?” He said. “If you were to call an ambulance, that’s a 20-plus minute response for us to get to Winthrop [or Lafayette]. When you look toward the Lamberton area, you’re looking at 20 to 30-minute response times. That could be the difference of life or death.”

Newman and Birkemeyer both agreed an increase in call volumes and pull to different facilities are a major reason for the decline. EMS crews need to be able to take patients from their home facilities to as far as Minneapolis-St. Paul during their day. For volunteer workers, this time and travel in addition to their 9-5 is too much.

Birkemeyer said there are still many positives to being an EMT or paramedic. He said you get to help people, support your community, and learn a variety of skills and knowledge.

Newman said working as an EMT can open many opportunities in the health field.

“We call EMTs the foundation of health care,” he said. “When we go on a call, we only have two people on an ambulance in New Ulm. You don’t just get to sit back, you learn leadership, compassion, and how to interact with people. At the same time, this is a building block. Getting your foot in as an EMT opens the door for any healthcare career.”

Newman said being an EMT can be a stepping stone to entrance into a nursing program. He said five of the six ER doctors in New Ulm had a background in EMT and paramedic work.

From his many years of teaching, Birkemeyer said the biggest misconception he’s fielded from his students is being an EMT and paramedic is filled with blood, guts, and gore. He said in reality, it’s not common to face these grosser parts.

“Yes, we’re gonna have patients that get cut or have injuries,” Birkemeyer said. “But there’s a big misconception of ‘How can you guys always deal with death?’ ‘How do you deal with all this bleeding?’ We don’t deal with a lot of it. We deal with a lot more transfers, or grandma fell and her hip is hurt sore [so we’re] helping her up and getting her to the hospital.”

Newman said some of the most common skills that transition into EMT and paramedic work are good social skills and can remain cool under pressure, even if they’re secretly panicking. Even so, Birkemeyer said he’s seen trainees come from all walks of life.

“In my class right now in New Ulm, we have 31 students,” he said. “We have nurses, a phlebotomist, mechanics. It’s 31 completely different people, but they all add a different advantage to becoming an EMT. That’s the nice thing, you can come into this with any kind of background.”

For more information, visit nremt.org or https://emsrblm.mn.gov.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper?

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today