GRANGEVILLE How do you retain and encourage the volunteers you have, and how do you recruit new people?
When it comes to serving their communities in crises, regional emergency medical technicians noted their frustrations in volunteering as real-life demands with work, family and personal economics press into that service. Maintaining qualifications takes time and money, not always are employers receptive to employees who may leave anytime for medical calls, and the base of upcoming volunteers – if any – is slim.
“We’re all in our 70s,” said one representative for Lowell Quick Response Unit, repeating a common concern among EMTs of the “graying” of its volunteers. “When we’re gone, Lowell QRU is gone,” which leaves the 77-mile stretch from Lowell to the Idaho/Montana border without emergency medical services (EMS) coverage.
“This is a continual issue in Idaho County,” said Syringa Ambulance EMT Bill Spencer, as well as for the state overall.
Nearly 100 people packed the Grangeville Senior Center last Monday, June 11 — largely comprised of those belonging to EMS services throughout Idaho County and surrounding communities – for a town hall meeting organized by the Idaho Bureau of Emergency Medical Services and Preparedness. This continues a series of Idaho Legislature-directed public input sessions across the state, which started in 2012, to address a growing concern – especially in rural communities — with recruitment and retention of volunteer EMTs. Public officials represented included several area city council members, federal congressional representatives, and state legislators Dist. 7A Rep. Priscilla Giddings and Senator Carl Crabtree.
Six years ago, it was identifying what the issues were, said bureau chief Wayne Denny, and meeting this year build off those to determine “What do we do now?” and to carry that conversation over to the legislature.
“What are the solutions we come up with? That’s what I would like to explore,” Denny said. Solutions from here will be compiled into a report that will be provided to legislators this winter in preparation for the upcoming legislative session.
What of making these funded positions? Spencer addressed this, starting with one ambulance with two EMTs, to staff this 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, would be 17,500 hours. Using figures he calculated from 2010; to staff just one ambulance with two EMTs, at $14 an hour with 20 percent for benefits, would be $305,000 a year, or $1.525 million for one ambulance for each of the five services in Idaho County. But, he continued, as you can’t operate here with one ambulance, bringing on an additional four raises that annual figure to $2.750 million.
“I don’t want us to have to go that way yet,” Spencer said, recommending that volunteer EMTs be included in the state’s PERSI retirement system or offered health insurance. For those who are self-employed, such offerings may encourage people interested to volunteer.
“There are lots of ways we can get creative on how to do this,” he said.
PERSI was also an option suggested by EMT and Kooskia Fire Chief Mark Anderson as a way to entice more people in the community to volunteer, easing some of the burden they take on and possibly encouraging them to stay on in the long term.
“To me,” Anderson said, “operational expenses are less of an issue than keeping personnel.”
A tax break or offering insurance would ease the burden, especially for those self-employed, according to Connie Weeks, Syringa Ambulance EMT, as well as encouraging employers to support EMT volunteers on their staffs.
“This will help us bring in young people, and to help keep the people we’ve got,” she said.
One person noted to be an EMT with the number of hours involved in certification and the expenses “is damn expensive… and it’s all out of pocket. Why would a 22-year-old want to come in and put $1,000 bucks to get in this game, and keep doing that every two to three years?”
Monday night’s participants raised whether tax credits could be extended to volunteers, or a quarter- to half-cent added to the fuel tax to help fund the EMS system or college loans forgiveness. Encouraging the younger generations to volunteer, suggestions were for college scholarships, college credits for training at the high school level, or that such training could be applied toward a subsequent nursing certification. One suggestion was EMT training should be during the school day and not in the evenings and weekend, “as that’s tough to do with the load they already have in high school.”
One person asked, “Is it feasible to train deputies as EMTs? Does it make sense?” as law enforcement is often the first emergency responder to the scene. In attendance, Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings responded, “Sometimes it does, if you’re the only one there, you do those EMT duties.” Giddings continued that such cross training would be expensive and, whether it is feasible or not, “We have a job to do separate from the job you do,” in law enforcement’s investigation and scene control roles.
At the meeting’s start, participants were asked to vote with sticky notes on boards listing multiple concerns raised during the 2012 round of town hall meetings. Funding issues took a sizeable amount of those votes on issues such as costs for initial education and certification, providing insurance for volunteers, and fund shortages at the county level. One attendee noted the economic reality of Idaho’s rural communities and that “there has to be some form of compensation for these volunteers to keep them hooked.”
“We want to find a solution, but we want it to be a sustainable solution without growing government,” said Senator Crabtree. However, “holding bake sales to fund fuel and support their services, while admirable, is not a long-term solution, and we need to do whatever we can to help them.”
Training and the increasing levels to be certified and maintain certification were discussed, with Denny noting this was a problem of EMS own making as the community – out of the need to improve service – adds more skills to its certification.
“You do a few of these a year and that creeps up,” Denny said. “Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy because we want this new stuff.”
Some criticism was laid with the millennial generation on its perceived lack of being involved in the community and its declines in public service, to which one woman finally spoke up on this talk as being “unproductive and unhelpful.”
“If you want them in your club, you need to be nice to them,” she continued, saying those older individuals involved have been unfriendly to younger individuals wanting to get involved. She suggested “speaking their language” in reaching out through social media, and overall in “getting these stories out there. I had no idea this was a problem. A lot of people don’t.”
Continuing this topic later in the discussion, EMT and president of Grangeville Mountain Rescue Unit, Brian Adams, stated the need to use the tools and incentives – whether it’s benefits, insurance or new uniforms — that reach younger and older generations to encourage retention and newcomers to volunteer. Those in the room are already committed to this service, and “we need to generate that additional interest to get younger people involved.”
“Why are we talking about volunteers and not as a full-time job?” questioned Robin Embry, Grangeville EMT, noting that into this “hobby” she has put more than 2,000 hours. “It’s a full-time job. We should be talking about how to pay people to stay in there.” The service volunteers offer is critical, and “I don’t know why we’re not willing to ask the public to pay for it. I think as an organization, we need to work toward something sustainable.”
After the meeting, Spencer said for the five-county area – Idaho, Clearwater, Lewis, Nez Perce and Latah – volunteer EMTs save this region $5.2 million annually.