The Spring Valley Ambulance Service is seeking first responders to help fill gaps in scheduling as the number of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) available in town decreases.

"We aren't quite at the crisis stage yet like some other towns," said Director Jim Cooper. "What we are trying to do is preempt this by reaching out to the community."

Of the 25 people on the ambulance roster, 15 work out of town and eight live out of town. In the current EMT training classes, only one person lives in town.

Cooper feels that it will be easier to recruit first responders to the service because the training is not as time-consuming and the examinations are easier. He is seeking four people, although he already has one person taking classes in another location.

The requirements to become an EMT are daunting for many people. The EMT course is equivalent to a semester-long, eight-credit course. The course is roughly 160 hours long over six months and requires participants to pass two very difficult exams, said Cooper. Half the students in the fall class dropped and two in the winter class have already dropped out.

The first responder course is about 60 hours long with a much easier exam process, said Cooper.

"Up to this point, we have not yet missed a call due to lack of staffing," wrote Cooper in a memo to the city council last week. "But, there have been several times where we have had only one person scheduled and it is only a matter of time before we get caught being short of staff."

That is why he decided to recruit local people to get trained as first responders to help fill those gaps. Normally, these people would be drivers, but as long as an EMT is providing patient care, the first responders can assist in patient care as well.

The state requires at least two EMTs on a crew, but Spring Valley has been granted a variance to have one EMT and a first responder. Many other communities throughout the state, including most in this area, have been granted the same variance.

Calls increasing

The shortage of personnel comes at a time when the activity for the ambulance service is increasing throughout the last two decades. It started when the local hospital closed down in the mid-1990s. Then, the Wykoff ambulance shut down around the middle of the last decade.

At the same time, the population is aging. A total of 65 percent of the ambulance service calls are Medicare patients.

Now, the ambulance service has about 450 calls a year and it could have six or seven just in one day.

Volunteers decreasing

At the same time that more people rely on the ambulance service, the number of people willing, or able, to work shifts has been decreasing. The time of the gaps is telling as Cooper's biggest concern is from 5 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m.

"So many people are working in Rochester and that is their drive time," he said.

The world of work has changed locally, too, as not as many employers give workers time off to make ambulance runs.

Also, the commitment isn't as enticing as it was 20 to 30 years ago when Cooper began. Not only is the commitment more demanding due to the extended training required now, but people seem to have more hectic lives as work and family are also more demanding of time.

Some small towns, such as Wykoff, are dealing with people resources - there aren't enough numbers to make a service go.

Many benefits

Although volunteers get paid and receive some benefits, most people do not consider their role as a job or a means of making a living. Despite the extensive training and education requirements, they see their role as providing a community service.

"The reason most people volunteer is because they feel a need to give something back to the community," said Cooper.

There is also personal satisfaction from learning how to respond and deal with emergency situations, added Cooper, whether it is with family or on travels. Gaining experience being on the front lines dealing with medical and traumatic emergencies develops confidence in people.

"You always carry that with you," he said.

The first responder option is especially helpful to people who may be unsure about the full commitment to the service.

"They could look at it as an entry level chance to get into the ambulance service, get some experience and then decide if they want to go to EMT," said Cooper.

Cooper is looking at starting a class in March, which would finish around the end of April. He may also have an open house in the next couple of weeks to inform people of the new options.

"I think this is a proactive approach to our staffing/scheduling issues, but until we try it, we not going to know if we can make it work," he told the council in his memo.

Cooper can be reached at 346-7414 for more information.

He noted that, like the fire department, the ambulance service has always had great support from the community, which goes a long way toward morale for the service.

"We really, really do appreciate that," he said.