EMT volunteer pipeline sought for schools

October 17, 2017 GMT

JEFFERSON — Jefferson Fire Department Chief Ron Wegner and Emergency Medical Service director Sue Reinen are working hard to make EMT training more accessible for high school seniors.

The effort seeks to achieve two aims: first, boosting the local volunteer roster at a time when it’s difficult to find the personnel to fully staff the EMS, and, second, providing an alternative pathway for young people interested in entering the health profession in the future.

Wegner described a “system in crisis,” not just in Jefferson, but across the United States, as rising needs for emergency medical personnel and increasing training levels coincide with lower numbers of volunteers, not just in terms of rescue volunteers, but throughout all areas of the community.

One way of boosting the local service is through promoting EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) training at the high school level as a volunteer opportunity and a possible pathway to a future medical career.

Wegner said that people can take the EMT exam as soon as they reach age 18, and they can begin their training in anticipation of that date. That means high school seniors could be a good pipeline for getting more basic EMTs in the ambulances where they’re needed.

This fact hasn’t been well-publicized, and Reinen and Wegner aim to change that.

“Historically, the health occupations classes in the area have done a really good job of letting students know about the possibility of getting CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) training,” Chief Wegner said.

In fact, many young people from Jefferson and the surrounding communities have found employment as CNAs before they’ve graduated from high school, working at nursing homes and other care facilities. Some might intend to continue in this line of work in the future, while for others, it’s a stepping stone to careers as a nurse, doctor or other medical professional.

This is a great example of a partnership between the schools and the community, the emergency services officials said. But they said it is time that EMS training is given the same prominence, as another option for young people interested in getting “real-life” experience in health care.

“I think the EMS is one of the best kept secrets in the community,” Werner said. “If you call 911, an ambulance comes, but who are those EMTs? They’re people who have taken time to get an education in order to be able to help their neighbors in a time of need.”

Almost all EMTs have “day jobs,” but they are paid-on-call, meaning they do receive some level of compensation for their efforts.

“No one is doing it for the money, but (they are doing it) because it’s the right thing to do,” Wegner said.

And being able to provide that help when it’s needed is incredibly rewarding, Reinen added.

“There is a cost to deliver this service, but we’re trying to keep the cost down,” the fire chief said, acknowledging that it’s hard to obtain funds for any municipal expenditure when local governments have a cap on how much they can tax/spend.

“We all pay for insurance policies so if we get in a car wreck, insurance will pay for it,” he said. “As citizens, we pay for the EMS as another type of insurance policy, assuring that well-trained, well-equipped people will be there to take care of you on the ‘worst day of your life.’”

While most people pay from $500 to $1,000 per year for auto insurance, EMS services account for only about $17 per year in costs for taxpayers in the supporting municipalities, he said.

However, the true cost of running the service, Wegner said, is closer to $25 per resident per year.

Furthermore, the EMS serves a lot of Medicare and Medicaid recipients, and for those calls, the EMS is reimbursed at a much lower rate, regardless of the level of care these patients require.

With this financial situation as the backdrop, it’s no surprise that emergency medical services can’t afford to have more than a handful of full-time paid personnel. That’s the case with Jefferson, as well.

But Wegner and Reinen believe that the local community has not yet tapped the potential for volunteers. That’s where the proposed partnership with the local schools comes in.

“We currently have six or seven EMTs on our roster who are full-time students, (mainly in college),” Reinen said. “We’ve got people who are attending vocational/technical schools and also traditional colleges, and one of these has just become a physician’s assistant.”

Reinen noted that at some colleges, students who serve as EMTs receive tuition assistance, so that can provide a great way of helping to finance an education.

She said the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has a scholarship program, for example. Students of UW-Whitewater who serve on the Whitewater EMS receive money to offset their tuition.

The training and the hands-on experience that serving as an EMT provides also gives students a great background for continuing in the medical field — in any number of directions, the officials said. Meanwhile, students can earn paid-on-call money while still attending school.

Dr. Ron Meyer, the past director of the Jefferson EMS and now chief of staff at Fort Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson, started out as an EMT, the officials noted.

Dr. Amy Hudson, a Johnson Creek veterinarian, also did so.

“She was my Wednesday night partner,” Reinen said.

Getting potential EMT recruits connected with the training they need has been a challenge, however. Madison College (formerly known as Madison Area Technical College) offers regular EMT Basic training, but most of those classes are held on the Madison campus, and only occasionally in nearby Fort Atkinson.

“In fact, three years ago, there was supposed to be a class in Fort and shortly before it was to begin, the plug was pulled on that location and students were sent to Madison,” Wegner said.

That’s a problem for younger students who might not have access to a car or the time to drive to and from Madison on top of attending a four-hour evening class.

When classes have been offered in Fort Atkinson, however, the slots have been filled and the local EMS services (whether Fort Atkinson or Jefferson) have benefited by the graduates’ training.

In order to bring the training where it’s needed, officials with the local EMS are looking into possibilities to actually bring EMT training right into the local high schools.

Wegner said he’d also like to work with the Fort Atkinson fire and rescue services to get something similar going in the neighboring community.

“We have been in touch with another school district that offers EMS and firefighter training right inside their high school, and it’s going well,” Wegner said.

The City of Jefferson has been very supportive of the idea, he said.

Since 2013, Jefferson High School has hosted a fire cadet program, creating a pipeline to recruit volunteers for the local fire department. The department has seen six high schoolers through that program. Nash Niesen, the most recent cadet, is in the fire/medic program at Waukesha County Technical College, Wegner said.

The fire chief noted that both of his children, Bryce and Alexa, went through EMS training as high schoolers.

Bryce received his EMT Basic certification as he finished high school and swiftly progressed through advanced EMT and paramedic certification, as well as completing his firefighter certification.

Niesen and another student, James Garity, are on the same pathway, Wegner said.

Meanwhile, Alexa began training as a nurse but changed her focus to becoming a flight paramedic instead because she was already utilizing advanced skills as an EMT which the nurses don’t use.

“Being an EMT is a great avenue to build a medical career if you want to go that direction — or, if you want to do something else, it’s a great way to help your neighbor here or wherever you might end up,” Wegner said.

“Today’s EMS is not the EMS of yesterday,” Reinen said, describing an era when an ambulance service basically picked people up and drove them to the hospital.

Modern emergency medical services have increasingly sophisticated training, tools and technology, allowing them to save lives long before the patients get to the hospital, he added.

Now it’s time to look to tomorrow, the local officials said, and to assure that these services remain strong and viable into the future — with help from the next generation.