When you call 911, you likely expect a prompt response from emergency first responders. However, it's becoming increasingly difficult to respond to every call in many rural Wisconsin towns, as a lack of volunteer first responders often causes many calls to go unanswered.
Tri-State Ambulance service covers 3,000 square miles and around 45 communities in western Wisconsin. Many of its EMTs and paramedics come through the program at Western Technical College in La Crosse. Recently, Tri-State Executive Director Tom Tornstrom says enrollment numbers in those programs are down.
"It's been slowly declining over the past three or four years," he said. "We're trying to figure out why that is. Part of the reason, I believe, is the notion that kids now a days should get a bachelor's degree. But in reality, para-medicine is a great health career that can be done without a four year degree."
Shaylin Schreiner is a senior at Onalaska High School and is currently enrolled in Western's EMT basic class. She says she first became interested after completing a required CPR class during the summer between her sophomore and junior year.
"I had no interest in this field whatsoever beforehand, I wanted to go to school for music education," she said. "Then I took that class and I was like, oh I want to do this!"
After she completes the course, Schreiner said she plans to take the national registry test, which will grant her a license so she can work with ambulance services or emergency departments within hospitals.
Duane Kneifl has been with the West Salem First Responders for 33 years and said over that time period, a lot has changed.
"Years ago, I think people felt more dedication that we have a job to do and now people just don't seem as committed," he said. "This is their community and I just think they'd want to give it everything they got but they don't seem to share the same feeling I do."
The volunteer department currently has 13 or 14 members, according to Kneifl. In an ideal world, he said 25 to 30 volunteers would enable every shift to be covered with at least two people.
"I've been out on calls by myself and paged for additional help and weeks later they'll say, well my pager was going off but I was in church and I chose not to leave," he said." I'm kind of like, that kind of feeling years ago would never fly."
Volunteers are paid $15 per call, but that will go up to $17 per call in 2018. Once on the department, volunteers are expected to work 48 to 50 hours a month.
"We have a ride-along program that can help get people interested along with a first hand look at what we do," he said. "But people have a lot of other commitments now and it's very difficult to get people to come aboard."
Kristina Sousou is a recent graduate of UWL and has served as a volunteer first responder in West Salem for the last two years. Originally from New Jersey, working in a rural town was a new experience for her. But now, she's realized a need she didn't know previously existed.
"There's a greater need out here and I've seen it first hand just going to a car accident," she said. "It may take us 10 minutes to get there and we're in town, so it might take Tri-State even longer to get there."
Sousou said many college students join volunteer departments for hands-on experience ahead of applying to medical school. As a result, she said, the job becomes more of a resume builder and people don't stick around.
"So many people have families, jobs during the day time and that's the time we have the most trouble covering." she said.
She also works 12 hours shifts in the emergency department at Gundersen Health System. Quite often, according to Sousou, calls for West Salem first responders go unanswered during the day, as none of its members are able to leave work to attend the emergency.
"They'll put out a second and third page and it's very hard to listen to if I'm at work and I can't leave," she said. "It's kind of embarrassing and upsetting to think about how the patient feels. I mean when they call 911 they're expecting an immediate response."
West Salem, though, is not alone. Many rural towns in Wisconsin are facing the same problem. Birth rates, family obligations and dual household jobs are just a few reasons for the decline.
"Response times are really important for a small percentage of calls, but those calls are the ones where somebody's heart may have stopped or they're choking," Tornstrom said. "It doesn't have to be a paramedic, it doesn't have to be an EMT, it just has to be a trained first responder that can get there in five or six minutes. If they can do that, we know they have a better chance of a good outcome."
Part two of our Digging Deeper series will air Monday night on our 10 p.m. Report. It will focus on educational efforts in the Coulee Region and how they play a role in lessening the shortage.