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Eyota ambulance service looking to go pro

March 11, 2019

EYOTA - “Times, they are a-changing,” said Chris Arendt.

Arendt, director of the Eyota Volunteer Ambulance service, addressed the Eyota City Council on Feb. 28, telling the mayor and council members that the all-volunteer ambulance service needs to start paying at least two full-time emergency medical technicians, and paying on-call wages and per-call stipends to its volunteers.

“We’re the rarity,” Arendt said, adding that unlike many volunteer ambulance services in the region, Eyota’s is “free-free.”

“No crew is paid. The director isn’t paid. The bookkeeper isn’t paid,” he said. “We’ve been able to maintain this for a very long time, but the writing is on the wall.”

That is the trend elsewhere, too. Tony Spector, executive director of the Minnesota Emergency Medical Services Regulatory Board, said the change Arendt is advocating in Eyota is part of a trend in volunteer services across the board, whether it’s ambulance services or volunteer fire departments.

In the average two-parent household, if one person volunteers for an EMS service, Spector said, it puts demands on the family. “The kids are so scheduled with activities,” he said. “We see some of that. We’re also seeing a (rural) population decrease. For some of the volunteers, they were working in an industry in town, but that industry isn’t there anymore.”

Another hurdle for volunteers, Spector said, is the training that is required to keep volunteers up-to-date on protocols, evolving technologies and refreshers in life-saving techniques.

Arendt said EMTs are required to take 48 hours of continuing education every two years to maintain their certification. And while that training is easier to access with online courses or intensive workshops and conferences, it still represents a demand on people’s time for what has long been volunteer positions.

Spector pointed to the priorities rural communities put on their part-time employees, and how EMTs and paramedics have come out on the wrong end of the equation. “You pay the person who operates the plow, the person who mows the grass, but don’t pay the person, who, by all accounts, saves lives,” he said.

“You start plugging all of this in, it’s like a kaleidoscope of challenges,” Spector said.

Arendt said that when he began approaching some of the townships that Eyota’s ambulance service serves, rather than opposing full-time, paid status for the EMTs, the township boards have generally responded with, “It’s about time.”

Paul Uecker, who sits on the Haverhill Township Board, said Arendt has yet to make a formal presentation to his board, but he was present at the Eyota Township Board when Arendt spoke there.

“We’d certainly listen to him,” he said. “We’d have to decide if we can work with him or not.”

Uecker said Haverhill Township is covered by three ambulance services, and Eyota’s covers just a small corner of the township. He said Arendt talked about creating a joint powers board with representatives from each township and city covered by Eyota’s ambulance service. The details of that proposal will need to be seen before he’d commit to keeping Eyota Ambulance as a provider.

“We certainly want to keep them,” Uecker said.

Arendt said while he has 26 EMTs and first responders on his volunteer roster, not all of them work significant hours, and there’s a real chance he could lose enough personnel to make it difficult to keep the service staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I can say for a fact I have lost multiple people because someone can offer a wage that I can’t,” Arendt said.

In the interim, the Eyota City Council asked Arendt to let them know if the situation becomes dire. When Arendt told the council he could fund two positions right now, but it would wipe out the ambulance service’s financial reserves, Eyota Mayor Tony Nelson implored Arendt to “come to us.”

“I’ve been in this role for 23 years,” Arendt said. “I have a few more years in me, but I don’t know if I have another 23.”