Management & Labor

Retirements Make Rural Medical Responders Nearly Disappear in Minnesota

February 18, 2014

For 23 years, Joe Mercil stayed within earshot of an emergency radio as he lived and worked in tiny Brooks, Minn., ready to rush to the medical aid of anyone in his community who needed it. As a volunteer first responder, he tended to more than his share of bloody car crashes, heart attacks and other problems as he stabilized patients until the ambulance got there. It was stressful, physically demanding work.

So when Mercil turned 64 last year, he decided it was time for him and his wife to retire. Now the town of 140 has only one first responder left.

“We were the only ones in town that were on it, so that’s why we kind of held on,” Mercil said. “I decided it was time for me to quit and let the younger people take over, but you can’t get anybody in these towns to take over. … The first question they ask is ‘How much money do you make?’ They don’t realize you’re [a] volunteer.”

Emergency medical service in rural Minnesota is approaching a dangerous dearth of volunteers as baby boomers age out of the demanding work and into needing more care themselves, emergency service leaders say. The shortage is hitting patient-stabilizing first responder groups as well as volunteer ambulance workers who rush to transport patients.

An estimated 60 percent of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics are volunteers in the state’s approximately 200 rural ambulance services, industry analysts say. First responders are almost completely volunteer.

Already the shortage of recruits has shuttered some small emergency squads, lengthening response times as ambulances race to help from farther away. Emergency service leaders say the problem will only get worse and they will have to get creative with solutions, likely by mixing in some paid staff and figuring out a way to pay for them.

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