Volunteers are sorely needed for a rural ambulance service that covers a swath of southwestern North Dakota and risks shutting down.
The roughly 20-year-old Marmarth Ambulance Service could dissolve in a few weeks if enough new volunteers don't lend a hand, according to founding member Hailey Dschaak and EMT Becca Bumgardner.
Bumgardner, who lives in nearby Baker, Mont., said the volunteer service has a "skeleton crew" of eight EMTs and drivers and hopes for about another eight people. Squad leader Erick Hartse said those would ideally be four to five EMTs and three to four drivers. An informational meeting is set for Tuesday night for anyone interested in volunteering.
"Not everybody is cut out to do that kind of work, but we are very, very hard up for volunteers," Bumgardner said.
The ambulance service had about 20 volunteers at its peak, serving western Slope and Bowman counties to the Montana and South Dakota borders, Dschaak said. It's a remote, rugged area, with some calls that require driving into South Dakota and back into North Dakota to reach the patient, she said.
Hartse couldn't estimate the population the ambulance squad serves in its 974-square-mile coverage area. Slope County Auditor Lori Buzalsky said it might be fewer than 300 people.
The Marmarth Ambulance Service could shut down by Aug. 1 if enough volunteers aren't found, Bumgardner said. Ambulances from Beach or Bowman would probably have to step up to fill the gap, Dschaak added.
Another squad absorbing Marmarth's ambulance coverage would lead to longer response times, perhaps double, Bumgardner said.
"And that's if they have the people themselves to be able to staff that," she added.
Marmarth's ambulance service sees 20 to 30 calls in a year, from vehicle crashes to recreational accidents to myriad medical situations. Hartse said the most recent call was in late June for a man who had fallen more than 30 feet.
Marmarth's call for volunteers is part of a greater trend across North Dakota of emergency services, mostly rural ones, facing a dire volunteer shortage. The North Dakota EMS Association doesn't track volunteers per squad, but President Kelly Dollinger said he often hears about services' struggles.
"I think especially with emergency services, ambulance in particular, volunteerism has become unfashionable, for lack of a better word," Dschaak said. "You're seeing volunteers drop off everywhere, I don't care what type of organization you're doing. If you're relying on unpaid volunteers, you're having trouble."
Hartse, 30, said the Marmarth squad serves a dwindling population with mostly older residents.
"You don't have numbers of people to pull from like you used to," he said.
Emergency responders often encounter stressful situations, Dschaak added. And in small communities, volunteers can find themselves assisting someone they know.
Bumgardner said new volunteers could be drivers for EMTs treating patients, which would free up valuable time for EMTs already doubled up on call. New volunteers would require training, depending on EMT or driver status.
"Whatever people are comfortable with doing and learning, we would be more than willing to take them on," Bumgardner said. The squad could help new volunteers arrange lodging for shifts, she added.
The informational meeting for the Marmarth Ambulance Service is set for 7 p.m. Mountain time Tuesday at the Community Center in Marmarth.