As rural communities across Wisconsin struggle to maintain volunteer first responder departments, educators in the La Crosse area are working to put a dent in the EMS shortage plaguing the state.
As we've reported, a shortage of volunteer first responders is affecting small towns in the Coulee Region, including West Salem. The small volunteer department has around 13 or 14 members, which is 10 to 15 short of being fully staffed. As a result, many 911 calls during the day go unanswered by the volunteers and are left to larger agencies such as Tri-State Ambulance.
But as the shortage continues to worsen, educators at Western Technical College are working to get more people back into the profession. The college offers an EMS basic class as well as a paramedic class, designed to give students real world hands-on experience in the classroom.
"You get to meet new people, you get to save someone's life and you get to meet their families later when they come back and say thank you," Hunter Loveland, a student in the paramedic class, said. "That's what means the most."
Most EMT courses require 180 hours, while paramedic classes can require 1,000 or more hours. As a result, Tom Tornstrom, Executive Director of Tri-State Ambulance, said the shortage really lies in volunteer first responders and paramedics.
"We seem to have plenty of EMTs in this area, but what we're always struggling to get is paramedics," he said. "Enrollment in some of Western's classes have been down over the past three or four years and we're not completely sure why."
One reason, he speculates, could be a growing societal pressure to obtain a four year bachelor's degree, rather than attend a technical college.
"A career in para-medicine is a great one and incredibly rewarding," he said. "So we're working on getting in to high schools and getting kids interested earlier on."
Shaylin Schreiner is a senior at Onalaska High School and is currently enrolled WTC's EMT basic course. A required first aid class she took between her sophomore and junior year helped spark her passion for helping others.
"I had no interest in this field whatsoever beforehand," she said. "I wanted to go to school for music education and then I took that class and I was like, I want to do this!"
After she completes the course later this month, she says she plans to take the national registry test, which will get her a license so she's able to work with an ambulance service or in a hospital's emergency department.
Wendy Williams, a student in Western's paramedic class says had EMS been introduced to her earlier on in her educational career, she could have saved a lot of time and money.
"We did job fairs but I don't remember EMS begin a part of that," she said. "If it had, maybe I would have been able to do this sooner."
Tune in to News 19's 10 p.m. Report on Monday night to see part two of this DIGGING DEEPER piece.