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SD officials seek patience from struggling region ambulance services

A sign welcomes people into Gregory, South Dakota. (Republic file photo)

GREGORY COUNTY — State officials urge patience for three region ambulance services in danger of shutting down.

Following state legislation that went into effect in late 2016 that reduced the number of emergency medical technicians (EMT) required to respond to ambulance calls, Deputy Secretary for the South Dakota Department of Health Tom Martinec said it will likely take more time for people to realize the benefits.

But for ambulance services in Gregory, Burke and Bonesteel/Fairfax struggling with recruiting new EMTs, services which may have to shut down in the next two years if the issue is not resolved, the long-term fix may not be enough.

“We’re getting to the point where if we don’t find more help soon, services are going to be looking at closing,” Burke Ambulance Department Vice President Mark Green said this week. “It’s been a long-term issue and we’ve just kind of been getting by, but it’s a real problem.”

Until July 1, 2016, state law required two medical personnel and one certified driver respond to calls. Since that date, law only requires one EMT and one driver, and the driver has to have some first aid certification. Legislation was also passed to allow emergency medical responders (EMR) to be recognized as medical personnel in South Dakota.

To become an EMT requires approximately 180 hours of training, whereas EMR training is typically 60 hours, Martinec said. The idea is to create a “career ladder” where a person can start as an ambulance driver, requiring minimal training, and if they enjoy it, they can choose to continue up the ladder with more training. Since the rules went into effect, there have been approximately 40 EMR applicants, Martinec said.

“It’s fairly new, but we think it has a lot of potential to help,” Martinec said. “I don’t think it’s a silver bullet, I don’t think it’ll solve everything, but it’s something.”

But with a statewide workforce shortage in the medical field, finding volunteers who can balance responsibilities at work, home and for the ambulance service is a problem that’s not unique to Gregory County, South Dakota Emergency Medical Services Director Marty Link said. But he’s hopeful for the future of Gregory County’s services and ambulances across South Dakota.

“You have good people out there doing important work, and I’m sure there are people out there who want to be part of it,” Link said. “With the more relaxed rules, I think that will encourage more to try it.”