By James Jordan
Wellington Daily News – July 31, 2014
When there is an emergency minutes, or even seconds, can be a matter of life or death. In cities like Wellington, a four-minute response time by an ambulance is common, but in the rural areas of the county it can take a lot longer.
Several EMS services operate around the county, and they can provide fast responses to emergencies, but some of those agencies are struggling to take care of calls in more rural areas.
Conway Springs is the latest to struggle. Other towns like Argonia and Belle Plaine have already had to make some hard decisions.
The problem is having enough people to staff the facility, or be available to make calls, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
“We are in danger of losing our EMS license due to a lack of volunteers and staffing,” Conway Springs paramedic Dawn Cornejo said.
She said they held a meeting in Conway Springs recently, and very few people showed up.
Conway Springs EMS training officer Billie Nickell said state rules require they be able to get an ambulance “out of the barn” in five minutes after receiving a call. They originally had a requirement that emergency personnel live in town, but finding qualified people made that impractical.
For years, since its inception, Conway Springs has operated with volunteers, but it is harder to find people wiling or able to do so. The city did recently approve hiring EMS help for 12 hours per week.
“More than half our volunteers are more than 50 years old. We have one that is 68. Some of us have been doing this 20 years,” Nickell said.
Conway Springs has two paramedics, Cornjeo and director Jim Brozovich, both of whom also work with Sedgwick County EMS.
It is not just the city that they cover though. Nickell pointed out they cover 247 square miles of Sumner County. They get some money from the county for that, but it is not enough to provide staffing levels needed to make up for the shortfall of vounteers.
They also have two ambulances to maintain, and it costs just as much to maintain one in Conway Springs as anywhere else, Nickell explained.
Conway Springs City Clerk Kathy Barklay said the greatest problem is the shrinking number of volunteers. At the public meeting recently, she told the group if they went to a paid service it would nearly double tax bills in the city.
“I can’t imagine not having EMS. We always know we can call 911 and someone will be there. It would be devastating to our town if we lost that,” Barkley said.
EMS director Brozovich said they may end up hiring one full time person, and with some paid part time help, the may be able to keep the system running.
Brozovich works for the Sedgwick County EMS during the day and helps out at other times in Conway Springs.
Another problem he has is servicing rural areas of the county. The county gives money to each city to pay for these services, but Wellington and Mulvane get 70 percent or more of that amount.
The City of Conway Springs will also pay for the training for anyone who will sign a contract and work for the city as a volunteer for a specified amount of time. Brozovich said that has worked out well in some situations.
Brozovich believes Conway Springs can scrape by for now, but it may have to consider some radical steps, such as ending its contract with the county to do rural calls.
Brozovich said the Conway Springs EMS has an operating budget of $92,000, and that does not include personnel. He wants to see the county work on its formula for distributing funds, which he thinks could help them cover the rural areas.
Nickell and Barklay have seen other towns struggle, and hopes Conway Springs doesn’t follow suit.
“We took on Belle Plaine service when they lost theirs for awhile. We had a few calls where there were not good results because of response time,” Nickell said.
Belle Plaine lost its service for a time, but is now utilizing a paid service.
It now has two people at the station at all times, two EMT’s and a full time director. The only concession they have had to make is not requiring them to live in the city limits, deputy city clerk Stephanie Howlett said.
Argonia did lost its EMS status, and now has first responders who can answer some calls. They are served by Norwich now for big emergencies.
“They can handle small emergencies. It depends on the day and who is in town,” city official Mindy Mages said.
She said so far it has not been an issue, and Norwich responds in 15 minutes or so.
“We get more calls that you might think, usually its shortness of breath, heat exhaustion or something like that. We have a lot of older individuals too,” she added.
Wellington EMS director Tim Hay said he thinks financing is a secondary issue to the staffing issue.
“People are older that volunteer. We have a newer culture now, there is just not as much volunteerism,” he said.
Hay said a county-wide system has been discussed at times over the years, and that may happen eventually.
“Something will have to happen,” he said.
Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster