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'Volunteer generation gap' delays response for emergency health care in rural Wisconsin

Wausaukee Rescue Squad
Posted at 2:40 PM, Mar 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-23 15:40:24-04

WAUSAUKEE, Wis. (NBC 26) — There is an urgent need for public safety workers in rural Wisconsin, according to state officials. Many rural rescue operations in Wisconsin are on the brink of shutting down due to a lack of staff and funding to keep going.

It's the shortage is a problem that leaves our most vulnerable without enough emergency medical staff to help them when they need it most.

"It's pretty chaotic. So, I'm on two different fire departments and I currently run the rescue squad right now as the president and service director. I'm always pulled in different directions," says Thomas Arthur, president and service director at Wausaukee Rescue Squad.

At Wausaukee Rescue Squad, Thomas Arthur also spends his weekends as an EMT, and works full-time as a firefighter with Johnson Controls. A schedule that often tops out at more than 100 hours a week.

So why is Arthur stretched so thin?

"Currently, there is a big shortage. Especially in Wisconsin but we see it nationwide," says Arthur.

Wausaukee County Rescue squad covers a territory of more than 200 square miles with more than 3,500 full-time residents. Right now WRS has 10 people on staff. They need 20.

"Earlier this year we had three calls at one time. What we did was, we had to call in for assistance for the neighboring squads," says Kevin Kwasny a volunteer EMT at Wausaukee Rescue Squad.

Wausaukee Rescue Squad
Wausaukee Rescue Squad ambulance in Wausaukee, Wisconsin

To fill staffing gaps, they rely on neighboring agencies like Crivitz and Pembine to cover their territory.

"By the time Crivitz gets there or Pembine gets there, that patient has been sitting there for quite a while. And that does happen. No matter what type of call it is whether it falls or just waiting for someone to come pick them up and take them to the hospital" says Kwasny.

Sometimes leaving patients waiting in an emergency for help.

Ambulance Driver, Tom Porte says high-tech devices like the automated CPR machine can mean a matter of life or death in an emergency call, especially in rural Wisconsin.

"It saves us a lot of work a lot of our community to the hospital are about 45 minutes. And we have to keep doing CPR that entire time," he says.

But rising costs and dwindling volunteers has created a crisis for rural EMT's

Last month's announcement from the State Capitol offers some hope. In his State of the State address, Governor Tony Evers announced $30 million to support and stabilize EMTs in rural communities, like Wausaukee.

But emergency workers like Thomas Arthur say it will take more than money to fix a problem that has been growing for generations.

"I personally think it's a generational thing. You used to get a lot of people in the past who would be involved in all kinds of different organizations and we just don't see that from the generations now," says Thomas Arthur. "It's just easier to uh, say well I'm not going to get involved or I'm too busy and it's easier to just cut a paycheck for someone else to do it," Arthur adds.

For these rural agencies to stay afloat they need the next generation of volunteers to step up and do their part.

"Police, Fire, and EMTs all work together and when one of us is hurting it affects all of us in public safety," says Marinette County Sheriff, Jerry Sauve.

"We're just one set of circumstances away from bad things happening," he says.

There is a desperate need for essential services throughout Northeast Wisconsin. If you are interested
in helping out, contact your local city or town officials to learn how you can help.