The intense development of oil in western North Dakota has repeatedly raised questions about how this sparsely populated state goes about providing basic services. It has tipped highway maintenance on its head.
The oil boom has blown up long-held ideas here about housing and law enforcement. It redefined North Dakotans’ understanding of “traffic.”
Another key area feeling the stress of change has been volunteer ambulance services. Volunteers are busier. Ambulance calls are up 60 percent in the oil patch. Also, emergency medical technicians from Bowman to Dickinson up to Watford City, Williston and Tioga are being exposed to a heavier psychological burden in terms of responding to more and more terrible accidents, fires and crimes.
Let’s face it: Not everyone has what it takes to be an EMT. And a steady diet of responding to life-and-death situations can be extremely stressful.
Historically, North Dakota has counted on volunteer EMTs and ambulance services. Only three of 44 ambulance services in the oil patch have fully-paid staffs.
And when the lid flies off “normal” and ambulance calls boil over, volunteers feel the pressure.
Four volunteer ambulance services — Dickinson, New England, Mott and Regent — have formed a nonprofit partnership to help them deal with supporting their volunteer EMTs. The idea is to create a pool of part-time EMTs to work temporarily in place of regular volunteers in the four services. It means there’s someone there to cover for EMTs when they need time off.
“The volunteers are so active and putting in so much, they really need some relief,” says Lynn Hartman, administrative director for Dickinson Area Ambulance.
The nonprofit Rural EMS Assistance hopes to fund its EMT-backstopping program with a grant from the state. The Legislature set aside nearly $30 million for a variety of emergency services programs, although the emphasis wasn’t necessarily on paying any wages.
North Dakotans are learning to remain flexible and open minded as they deal with the oil boom and its challenges. Funding back-up staff for ambulance services may be a very wise use of state money.
Ambulance services are critical when you need them, whether a person farms, clerks in a store or works on an oil rig.
It’s that first trained response in a medical emergency that can, many times, save a life. North Dakota needs to discover the means to make its ambulance services work in a changed environment.