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Staff shortages a challenge for rural emergency services

City of Antigo ambulance
WAOW Television
City of Antigo ambulance

Rural emergency departments statewide are finding it harder and harder to respond to calls.

Try to imagine a scenario, you call 9-1-1 for an ambulance, and it never shows up, that's the issue some rural EMS departments are facing across Wisconsin.

Antigo Fire Department said they've had to expand their coverage area further and further after two volunteer departments completely shut down.

It's a career station, but its neighbors are mostly volunteer, and now, the EMS services in Langlade County have shrunk from four to two.

"It's certainly a big hit," said Corey Smith, Assistant Chief with the Antigo Fire Department.

It means their coverage area is now over 700 square miles of Langlade County, they said a number of factors contributed to the situation they're in.

"It's kind of a perfect storm right now," said Smith.

The inability to attract and retain volunteers in rural areas in decimating EMS service coverage across the state.

The Wisconsin Department of Rural Health said 41% of 218 departments didn't have enough volunteers to respond to 9-1-1 calls at all times in 2022.

"What you're seeing is a potential for complete failure of the system," said James Small.

The study found 10 communities in Wisconsin who experienced 9-1-1 calls that were never answered, because an ambulance couldn't be found.

Experts said these numbers could increase.

"The data really suggests that we're going to see more of that, it suggests that we're gonna see unintended outages of these services," said Small.

There's no quick and either fix either.

"Now we've reached a point here where as there's less volunteers, as people age out of the system and so on, there are just not enough position to be able to continue on without paid staff, but also in many cases the local municipalities don't have the ability to generate the funding to pay for that," said Smith.

Local departments said state funding may be a first step.

"One of the things that needs to change is how these municipalities are funded, that's a big push right now," said Smith.

Despite the difficulties, the department said they're committed to giving dependable care no matter where people live.

They encourage anyone who may want to be an emergency responder to call their local departments.

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