The closing of rural nursing homes is also putting a strain on ambulance services, said Patrick Lee, executive director for Arrowhead EMS, which represents seven northeast counties. Instead of sending loved ones to care centers dozens of miles away, people are making use of 911, he said.
With so few volunteers “it’s getting to be a scary situation,” he said. “Knowing that a loved one could call 911 and unfortunately there’s not a crew that can respond. It’s a huge issue.”
Business hours are the most difficult to staff with volunteers.
Most recruits have full-time jobs far away from their rural homes. In a difficult economy, many employers haven’t been as flexible in allowing workers to leave when alarms go off, officials said.
Though some services pay small amounts, such as $2 an hour to be on call and stipends for each run made, that money mostly covers expenses such as ruined clothes at bloody accidents, volunteers say.
In Two Harbors, the ambulance service applied for equipment grants and trimmed its budget to hire paid staff about a year ago after struggling with volunteer shortages, Director Danielle Deneui said. They are considering a fundraising campaign this summer.
The ambulance service owned by townships surrounding Zumbrota has resorted to hiring, too, adding two paid daytime paramedics to a team of 24 volunteers. Last year, they covered more than 800 calls over 330 square miles, mostly in Goodhue County, which has seen its 65-and-older population rise from 15 percent to 18 percent over a 12-year span.
Managers there set up a training facility for the region as a way to earn revenue and draw more recruits.
Jamie Sommer, a 34-year-old hair stylist in Wanamingo, sat in a four-hour, twice-weekly class Thursday night, part of more than 100 hours of EMT instruction, learning the protocols for assessing a patient. She had always wanted to try being a medical responder, she said, and the class near her home was a good opportunity to sign up.
She hovered over a fellow student lying on the floor, practicing how to check someone for injuries as others watched. Even the practice was making her sweat with adrenaline.
When she finished, she raised her arms with relief and smiled: “Saved you! You are alive! Woo!”
Having to shut down a service isn’t always a bad thing, though. In the southwest Minnesota town of Belview, when the ranks of volunteer EMTs dwindled to five, leaders closed the ambulance service more than a decade ago. Its vast territory is now covered by surrounding services, many of which use highly trained paramedics. Town leaders have found it easier to recruit local first responders because that role requires less training and commitment.
The Minnesota Ambulance Association is promoting legislation to put a $10-a-year assessment on auto insurance policies to help fund trauma training for ambulances, hospitals and other responders.
Some ambulance services with paid staff also are starting to train workers to be community paramedics, allowing them to make checks on residents while they wait for emergency calls and bring the service more income.
Near Brooks in northwest Minnesota, where Mercil and his wife are enjoying life without a squawking emergency radio, Mike Dessellier needs more volunteers. As president of the Oklee ambulance service 8 miles away, he covers 100 square miles with nine volunteer EMTs and five first responders, many of whom work 30 miles away in Thief River Falls. An assisted-living facility opened in Oklee a few years ago, he said. The usual 80-or-so service calls is now up to 140.
“Anything we can take as far as new members, we more than welcome them,” he said.