By Travis Mounts
Volunteers are an ongoing issue for ambulance services around Sumner County, including Conway Springs EMS and Norwich EMS, which provides ambulance service for the Argonia area.
Those involved in providing ambulance service and care in the area say an aging force combined with a lack of new volunteers is threatening the viability of local services. One answer may lay in moving to having a paid emergency medical service, but that raises a new issue – how to pay for it.
Simply put, there are not easy answers.
Conway Springs EMS director Jim Brozovich needs volunteers right now.
“We’re critical for daytime now. We’ve had too many people leave,” he said Monday. His volunteer service has two ambulance units ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That means having four people in town and on call at any given time.
Many of his volunteers work out of town jobs during the day, and that makes it hard to maintain service. But that problem could expand. A majority of the volunteers have put in 20-25 years or more and are ready to retire. Eighty percent of Conway Springs’ volunteers are age 50 or older.
Last month, the Conway Springs city council approved funding part-time daytime help, up to 24 hours per week total. Brozovich has hired two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) for those positions. That’s helped him cover the daytime but it doesn’t help his overall numbers. That’s because he’s hired two volunteers just to make it worth their time to be in town and on call.
He foresees a paid staff.
“We’re progressing that way. We just can’t keep people,” he said.
That staffing problem led Argonia to turn its license over to Norwich EMS. Right now, if someone in the Argonia area needs an ambulance, local volunteers can respond with an ambulance unit based in Argonia. But there’s no guarantee that volunteers will be available, which means an ambulance will need to come from more than 20 miles away.
It’s not an ideal situation, but three years ago when Argonia EMS surrendered its license, there was a distinct possibility the city could be left without any ambulance coverage at all.
Jan Smith is the former EMS director in Norwich and still volunteers there. He said the situation is working, but response times are longer.
“If there’s somebody available (in Argonia), they’ll respond,” he said, adding that there have only been a few times that local volunteers weren’t able to respond in Argonia.
Norwich EMS continues to actively look for volunteers, too. The only paid position is the director. Smith said it’s harder to find people today.
“Volunteerism just isn’t the same,” he said. “It’s always been a problem. It’s getting tougher and tougher.”
He agrees with Brozovich’s assessment that volunteer services won’t last.
“I feel like smaller services are going to have to go to full-time paid services,” he said.
Conway Springs currently staffs to always have two ambulance units available. Norwich has two units, but generally has personnel on call for one unit.
If volunteers aren’t the answer, then a paid service may be.
But that costs money that’s hard to find. Local cities or entities pay a large part of the cost. Right now, Sumner County also collects a tax that is redistributed to the various EMS districts.
Wellington fire chief Tim Hay said it’s a complex formula that determines how much money goes to each district. One of the factors is the number of runs. That means as call volumes vary from year to year, funding can fluctuate. Hay would like to see a more steady formula. He raised the idea of a countywide EMS service at a recent Sumner County commission meeting.
Wellington’s EMS is primarily funded by the city. The county funding helps the city to cover Oxford, Gueda Springs and a large rural area in southeast Sumner County.
County commissioners also want to explore ending the county tax-and-redistribution plan, possibly replacing it with individual EMS districts that would raise their own funds.
Hay said one problem with that plan is that state law limits ambulance districts to a maximum of three mills.
Matt Miller, owner of Miller EMS in Medford, Okla., said his state used to have a similar funding limit. Grant County, where Medford is located, uses a sales tax to help fund service. Oklahoma’s state legislature also wiped away the mill-levy cap that ambulance districts had faced.
Miller EMS manages Caldwell EMS for Sumner County Hospital District No. 1. The company provides personnel when there’s not enough volunteers, and operates EMS services in Grant County. Miller said it’s expensive to staff an ambulance unit. He said the cost is $400,000-$425,000 annually per ambulance unit. That includes the vehicles, supplies, personnel and other costs.
That’s a cost community leaders will have to look at, however, if they can’t otherwise staff their EMS units. Miller said his company is in discussions with Caldwell about the future of EMS there. Caldwell EMS is down to three volunteers.
In all these cases, the immediate solution would be for more local people to become involved.
“If small rural towns want to keep their rural ambulances, we’ve got to have volunteers. EMS, fire – it doesn’t matter,” Brozovich said. “We’ve got to depend on the younger generation.”