A call to serve: Allamakee County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) teams in need of additional local help

EMT Class to be offered beginning in January at NICC Waukon Center

by Lissa Blake

(Editor’s Note: This feature on the Waukon EMS program is the first in a multi-part series addressing the need for additional Emergency Medical Services personnel in Allamakee County. Additional area communities will be featured in subsequent articles.)

Many people take for granted that during a medical emergency, help is just a phone call away. But what if that weren’t always true?

A group of local emergency personnel recently came together to try and make sure someone will always be there to answer those calls. Formed in August of this year, the new Waukon EMS Association, a local nonprofit, hopes to find a way to help keep local emergency personnel at the ready.

“In Iowa, EMS (emergency medical services) is not considered an essential service (like fire protection or law enforcement). We don’t get any tax dollars to support EMS, but the law requires all communities to provide the service,” said local paramedic Cheryl Livingston, who serves on the Veterans Memorial Hospital (VMH) Ambulance Service.

Livingston added that the Veteran Memorial Hospital Foundation and other community groups have been generous in helping the VMH ambulance service upgrade some of its equipment over the past few years, but it is an ongoing need.

“With the Waukon EMS Association, we’ve started the process of writing grants and making some public awareness that we’re here. We are a 501(c)3. Any contributions are tax-deductible,” Livingston shared.

In addition to investigating grant funding, the organization plans to hold periodic fundraisers. “The goal with this group is to help start filling a pretty long list of wants and wishes. We have equipment that needs to be upgraded,” she added.

Livingston said plans for fundraising include possible merchandise sales with the group logo on it. “People have to keep in mind it is the same group of people doing the leg work to get this organization going who are trying to balance their time responding to ambulance calls and getting their continuing education,” she said.

In addition to financial assistance needed to keep ambulances fully stocked and on the road, Livingston said Waukon’s emergency medical services personnel could use more help. Livingston said in Waukon, residents are fortunate Veterans Memorial Hospital not only helps staff the ambulance service, they also help with compensation of the drivers and EMTs (emergency medical technicians.)

But that’s not always enough.

“Even though we have three ambulances, just like Murphy’s Law, when it rains it pours. It is fairly common for us to have two ambulances on the road at once. That means having qualified people available to respond to both calls,” said Livingston. “If you have a critical patient, it could easily take up to three people to manage one person.”

During the daytime, typically there is someone who is already working at the hospital on ambulance call to serve the Waukon community. “Fortunately, VMH is staffed well enough to do that,” Livingston said.

But after hours, finding someone to stop whatever they’re doing in order to answer the call can be more of a challenge. There are currently 25 people on the EMS roster to serve the Waukon community, but the service could certainly use more.

“People don’t just call for an ambulance during the business day. It’s often at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Half the staff that work on the roster don’t work in healthcare full-time. That means if they go out on an ambulance call in the middle of the night, they may not sleep and have to head straight to their day job,” said Livingston, adding people are usually signed up for a call shift that lasts between 12 and 24 hours, whatever can work for them.

She added of the 25 people on the current roster, only nine live in the town of Waukon. “Even having five more people who live in or close to Waukon would really help,” she said.

Livingston said while people do get paid a small amount to be on call, and if called they are compensated more, being an emergency responder is “not a get rich quick scheme.”

“EMS is about wanting to help your community and others … it’s not a glory job. It is hard work, and it requires a lot of education and investing a lot of yourself into it. It isn’t glamorous by any means,” she said.

Livingston added, in the past, it has been difficult because people often join the EMS community with the wrong expectations.

“Some people think the ambulance is only called when there is a really bad accident or someone is not breathing. That’s probably only 10 percent of our calls. It’s very common to be called to go get someone who has some back pain or abdominal pain. Maybe they just don’t have any other way to get to the hospital. You’re not just being called to high profile situations,” she said.

In addition to staffing concerns, Livingston said it is a constant struggle to come up with the funding for equipment and supplies.

“Insurance companies are making it more difficult to meet billing expectations,” she said. “If you don’t document something in the particular language they need, companies are refusing to pay claims. When you look at many insurance companies paying us at a rate of 50 percent, that’s barely covering the cost of that particular call.”

Over the past 15 years, ambulance calls have more than doubled in Waukon. “It’s the whole fact of our aging population,” said Livingston.

In 2018, there were 701 calls in Waukon. Of those, 263 were transfers: patients who were at the hospital and needed a higher level of care than VMH could provide. There were 19 times Waukon assisted other ambulance services within the county.

“Waukon has paramedics on duty at the hospital 90 percent of the time,” Livingston said. Paramedics are able to provide pain meds and medication in case of cardiac arrest or drug overdose.

“In case of a bad accident, such as farming or a car accident, we may be called in to assist another ambulance service prior to the patient being transported by air. We get there first to help stabilize, start IVs and pain meds,” she said.

However, one problem with that assistance situation is that only one agency can bill for patient care. “So, if we are called to assist, which we often are, we do not get paid for those calls, even though we’ve incurred a majority of the cost,” Livingston explained.

With one month left this year, Waukon EMS has already responded to 703 calls.

Waukon Fire Chief Dave Martin, who also serves as an EMT, added how rewarding it can be to help people in emergency situations.

“EMS is not a glamorous job, but day in and day out we do it because we care, and we are all part of a team that gets self gratification from helping people. Whether it is a complete stranger, a well-known community member or a friend or family member, being trained as an EMT gives you the skills needed to really make a difference in someone’s life. We truly want the best for our community and all our residents we serve. So, please contact your local ambulance service to join a team committed to serving their community,” shared Martin.

In an effort to fill a county-wide shortage, the Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) Waukon Center is offering an EMT class, beginning in January.

“The overall class is 132 hours over 34 sessions held Mondays and Thursdays from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. The tuition is $1,239, not including the cost of books and uniforms which adds approximately $379 to the cost,” Livingston shared.

Anyone interested in attending the EMT class to help serve any of the Allamakee County communities should contact Northeast Iowa Community College at 800-728-2256 or Veterans Memorial Hospital at 563-568-3411. Orientation for the class is Monday, January 7 and the class begins Monday, January 14.

More information about the upcoming course can also be found on Page 1B of this edition of The Standard.

Anyone who would like to make a tax-deductible donation to the Waukon EMS Association can do so in a variety of ways: mail a check to P.O. Box 351, Waukon, IA 52172; make an electronic contribution at www.waukonems.weebly.com or contact Livingston at 515-681-5160.

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