Rural Idaho EMS volunteers put community at the center of service
Quick Response Unit volunteers work on recruitment as call volume increases
By Eric Goodell
KIMBERLY, Idaho — If they don’t step up, who will?
Members of southern Idaho quick response units don’t perform their jobs to get recognized, or for the pay, said Mandy Jo Archer, but do it for the benefit of their small communities.
“If somebody doesn’t step up to do this job, there isn’t anybody to do this job,” said Archer, who raises money for QRUs.
And “this job” that quick response units do is important. While QRUs might have different makeup and structure, their aim is consistent: To provide timely and essential emergency medical services to rural populations to improve health outcomes and save lives.
And it’s mostly a volunteer effort, with members usually getting a modest stipend for their service.
Much like volunteer firefighters, this is a special kind of volunteering.
“It is an extreme sacrifice because it’s not like a 9 to 5 job,” Archer said. “They carry a pager and can be called out anytime, anywhere.”
But these days, unsung heroes can be hard to find. Numbers of volunteers are waning, to the point where Buhl Fire Chief Andrew Stevens said he’s not sure if the volunteer system in his department can sustain itself the way it did decades ago, when call numbers were about a third of what they are now.
Recruitment, Archer said, is the “No. 1 problem of any of our organizations.”
Quick response units are looking for willing people, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be young, muscular people. Buhl EMT Barbie Jarvis said retired folks willing to serve could fit right in.
Although not a member of a quick response unit, Archer she understands the sacrifices quick responders make.
Her father was a member of a QRU, as well as a volunteer firefighter and chief of police. Her mother worked on an ambulance crew. Her brother is a reserve police officer and firefighter.
“I grew up in a first-responder family,” she said. “When I was younger, my parents would drop everything to go to a call and me and my brother would be in the back of the car for hours at the scene.
“It isn’t just a sacrifice for the individual but a sacrifice for the entire family.”
QRU members even have to rush from family gatherings like family reunions or Christmas dinner when the call for help comes.
But why do they do it?
Jarvis, a member of the Buhl QRU, recites a quote: “It’s hard to explain to a non-EMS person why we get up in the middle of the night to go to an address we’ve never been to before to help a person that we’ve never met.”
Jarvis’ involvement in quick response units about five years ago came essentially by accident.
She was a divorced mother of children and was working for midwives, assisting them with home births. A co-worker planned to take an EMT course to increase her medical skills, and asked if she wanted to enroll with her.
She said yes.
Jarvis took a course at the College of Southern Idaho, and then she found out that she needed to be affiliated with a fire station in order to keep her certification, so she joined the QRU unit.
“If I knew I would have liked this so much I would have done it years ago,” she said.
The adrenaline rush keeps her going, along with the chance to help other people.
“Because we are so rural, we are the first ones to walk into the door and help,” she said. And she appreciates the look of relief on people’s faces when QRU members do just that.
Jarvis also works full-time at the plasma donation center in Twin Falls, so she stays busy as she juggles the two responsibilities. It’s a relief, she admits, when she actually gets to sleep through the night instead of having to respond to a call.
Some nights she’ll get back from a call, crawl into the bed and start getting comfortable, when the tones from her pager alert her to another call.
She’s made her share of sacrifices. One might make a case that she sacrificed her home as part of the job.
It was a Sunday morning when in a rush she left her home to help an elderly lady who QRU had responded to several times before.
“She was having some stroke-like symptoms,” she said. “I hurried and got straight to town and we helped get her loaded into an ambulance.”
But when Jarvis returned to her home, she received an unpleasant surprise upon opening her front door and seeing large flames. She had left her toaster oven on before leaving to help the woman.
People ask her if she regrets responding to that particular call? Should she have just let someone else take it?
She said there are no regrets, although she had to gut her entire home and find another place to live for a year and a half while repairs were made.
While there are sacrifices, there are rewards of working as a team, although not every life can be saved.
Her very first call five years ago involved a man who was feeling fine initially, but things took a turn for the worse. She and another EMT began CPR, and firefighters, hearing the gravity of the situation, also came to the scene, along with paramedics. An air ambulance was called and landed.
Everyone was working as a team, but nothing was helping to revive the man. The ambulance nurse asked everyone whether there was anything else they could do, or whether anyone else had any other ideas. Sadly, nothing could be done to save the man.
“The family was there,” Jarvis said. “It was a hard thing, but I was impressed with us as a team.”
Besides the uncertain hours, when someone is already working a full-time job, monetary compensation could be a reason for low volunteer numbers. QRU members sometimes have to pay for their own training.
It’s not as if units don’t try. They do what they can to assist financially, paying for tuition for classes after their successful completion, and Archer’s fundraising helps pay for some member expenses.
Archer, as president of south-central Idaho’s QRU NonProfit Organization, applies for grants and holds an annual fundraiser for nine quick response units. Usually held in June or July, it attracts 300 to 600 people with its games and food, and usually raises about $50,000 to $65,000 per year.
With other fundraising, the organization has about a $100,000 annual budget. It sounds like a lot until it is divided between the nine organizations, she said.
Members of quick response units are considered volunteers, because they are not on the clock, but do get paid something, depending on resources, whether it be a stipend or based on mileage.
It is a “big ask” to do what QRU members do, Stevens said.
He worries about declining volunteer numbers. As is common, volunteer firefighters and quick response unit members often cross-train, so they can help out in either fires or medical situations.
Right now he has 30 volunteers, and of those, 11 are EMT-only.
“The biggest sacrifice is the increase in call volume over the years,” Stevens said. “In 1993 when I was a kid falling out of trees and EMTs were responded to me, they probably received about 300 calls a year, and now they are responding to 1,100 to 1,200 calls.”
He said training standards are getting more stringent as well, usually requiring attending a semester of college rather than getting in-house training.
Even if his department came into extra revenue so he could add to the full-time staff, Stevens there would still be a need for a quick response unit as a safety net, for times when the department has multiple calls near the same time.
Jarvis said she is trying to get more people interested in becoming EMTs and joining quick response units.
When Jarvis first joined the Buhl QRU, there were three women, all retired schoolteachers that had been volunteering for 30 years. It worked well because they had summers and weekends free.
“They knew people in their community — almost very house they would walk into they knew a cousin or a relative or that patient personally,” Jarvis said. “They were wonderful trainers.”
The women are now no longer with the QRU, and a void is there.
Who will step up?