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Why An Ambulance Isn't Always A Guarantee For Iowans

Natalie Krebs
The EMS Department in Tripoli, Iowa operates with just a handful of volunteers -- most are retirement age.

In some parts of Iowa when you call 911, there’s no guarantee that an ambulance will be available, and this is a big problem in rural areas, where volunteers are scarce. That’s because emergency medical services are not considered essential, like fire or police.

When her husband started having severe chest pains four years ago, Donna Hansen said the plan seemed straightforward. Her daughter would drive him to the fire station two miles away in their town of Hudson to get an ambulance.

"She called 911 and then told them I will just meet you in at the -- at the firehouse. They just felt that would save time," she said.

But then the plan fell apart when they arrived. Hansen said at the fire station an ambulance was ready with a driver, but no EMT was available.

That meant the department called the back up service — a hospital in Waterloo 20 miles away. But Hansen says as her husband’s condition deteriorated, her daughter decided she couldn’t wait. She took off speeding down the road, passing every car.

"She was driving 90 miles an hour, she passed every car that she came up on, you know, put her life in danger, too, Hansen said. "At one time her dad said to her, you need to be careful because you're going to kill us both."

Hansen drove to meet them from nearby Cedar Falls. She said she met her daughter's car at an intersection seven miles from her house, by a Harley Davidson store. 

Credit Natalie Krebs / IPR
Donna Hansen of Hudson lives alone with her two dogs, Elliot and Auggie, in the home she previously shared for nearly three decades with her husband Tim, who died nearly four years ago.

"They came off the interstate here. And then right here on this corner, right here is where they actually loaded him was right there," she said.

Hansen said husband of three decades, Tim, passed away at the hospital from a massive heart attack. Now, she says she wonders if the delay in emergency care made a difference.

"Time is essential with with things like this, and I think we all know that there's truth in that," Hansen said. "So him not getting the care that he needed at the time could have completely changed everything."

Mark Sachen, the president of the Iowa Emergency Medical Services Association, said cases like Hansen’s are the reality of rural EMS today.

"Our code provides that cities, counties and townships have to provide law enforcement protection. They have to provide fire protection. But there is nothing in state code that says they have to provide emergency medical service for their for their residents," Sachen said.

Sachen estimated that three-fourths of the local departments are volunteer-run, and because the service isn’t guaranteed by local or state funding, many get their money from billing patients and throwing bake sales or pancake breakfasts. 

"We've gotten by for a long time on that, on that model, but I think we're to the point now where the demands on the system are, are far exceeding the available resources available to provide those services," he said

The numbers are grim. Iowa has seen a 4 percent decreasein the number of registered EMTs in the past five years. Fourteen counties are covered by just one ambulance service while one -- Worth County -- doesn’t have any for its 400 square miles.

This is also a problem nationwide. According to a report by the North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center, more than two-thirds of EMS directors have a problem retaining and recruiting volunteers.

It's at the crisis stage," Sachen said. "Latest numbers that I've seen -- there's almost 22 percent decrease in the number of new EMTs being certified in the state, which is continuing downward trend for the last number of years.”

That leaves rural departments struggling to cover emergencies.

In the town of Tripoli, located about 30 miles north of Waterloo, EMS director Kip Ladage has just a handful of EMTs to cover 99 square miles in Bremer County.

"From six in the morning to six at night we've probably have two, maybe three, if we’re lucky that are available," he said.

Ladage said staff shortages in neighboring areas can create a domino effect.

Credit Natalie Krebs / IPR
Rural volunteer EMS departments like Hudson often struggle to get enough volunteers. The job is time consuming and training can cost thousands of dollars.

"What if Tripoli can't cover and Denver is already out and can't cover. Then where do we go? Then that response time just gets that much longer," he said.

In Wright County, local official Karl Helgevold said they reached a breaking point in 2016 when one of their small towns stopped its service.

"It was always, you know, the, the elephant in the room that no one wanted to address," Helgevold said. "I think it really came to a forefront when our city of Dows closed their ambulance service, and they weren't able to provide it anymore. It's like, 'wow, this is really happening.'"

In 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved a property tax levy to make Wright County the first in the state to declare it as essential – and fund it.

The levy raised a half million dollars a year for training, equipment and a countywide EMS coordinator. But Helgevold he feels EMS is something the state needs to ensure. Under current Iowa law, the county's levy sunsets in five years.

"Would it be great if the state had a way to mandate it and fund it in a perfect world? Yeah, but we don't live in that type of world right now. So ... we need to go and provide good service to our citizens," Helgevold said.

One proposal in the Iowa legislaturewould make it easier to follow Wright County’s example. It would allow counties to set up partnerships and use existing local taxes to fund EMS without voter approval.

State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton, in the eastern part of the state, is sponsoring the legislation. He said EMS is a priority for him this session.

"Rural EMS funding is probably the number one issue in my district," he said. "Our ambulance services are struggling to make ends meet, putting pancake breakfast together just to fulfill their budget."

But Kaufmann said he doesn’t think the service should be declared essential at the state level, like police and fire, because it could impose a cookie cutter set of requirements.

"I still think it should be done county by county because there are different mechanisms that work for different areas," he said. "And I think it's particularly important that you don't force EMS as an essential service on some of the urban areas that might not need that right now.”

But Kauffman said he's also is asking the state to appropriate about $5 million towards EMS departments.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter