Ambulance crews keep busy with medical calls
By Sarah Smith
North Memorial Health Care, a Robbinsdale-based system, purchased the Park Rapids and Walker ambulance services in 2002.
In doing so, said manager Dennis Mackedanz, affiliation with North Memorial “erased our budget woes.”
But like all businesses in an economic downturn, North Memorial has had to scrimp and save.
“I don’t think that’s actually isolated to any one industry,” he said. “I think that RDO does the same thing. We all have to answer to the fiscal monster.”
The ambulance service has 28 staff, 16 benefitted, Mackedanz said in a recent presentation to the Hubbard County Board. It also owns seven ambulance vehicles, three in each location, with one extra.
Only three operate at any one time in the Walker-Park Rapids region, however.
“One day there would be two in Walker and one in Park Rapids. The next day it could be two in Park Rapids and one in Walker,” Mackedanz explained.
And he admitted it’s hard to staff in an economic downturn when the calls – 2,000 a year – keep pouring in.
“Our staffing levels are at their lowest,” he told the board. “We’re working to increase staffing, increase the number of trucks.”
That entails recruiting people to the profession.
The Walker-Park Rapids area has seen a 10-15 percent increase over last year, Mackedanz said.
It’s not a nationwide phenomenon, simply “local to here.” The coverage area includes Wolf Lake and Osage to the east, Two Inlets, Itasca State Park and other areas.
The lakes area is getting to be a retirement mecca for Midwesterners who want to stay here. But aging populations tend to have their own discreet health problems, prompting many calls about heart attacks and strokes.
And then there’s the fishhooks, bullets and other casualties of an outdoors recreation spot.
It’s a relatively new industry, Mackedanz said, 40-50 years max.
“Prior to that it was funeral homes that did ambulance transport,” Mackedanz said. Injured and dead both were loaded into a hearse.
“It’s interesting how our industry has transformed,” he added.
As crews scramble to cover the area, they “stage” for each other if one truck is out. That means they move to a centrally located spot, usually Nevis of Akeley, in the coverage area, and wait for a call.
Any one truck can take a patient a long distance, Mackedanz said, or a short hop to a local hospital. A crew never knows if it will be transporting someone to Fargo or Minneapolis when they answer a call.
Ideally, a response time should be around eight minutes for 911 calls.
“We have a summer schedule and a winter schedule,” Mackedanz said.
Ambulance attendants work 24 or 48-hour shifts if they’re from out of town.
On a 24-hour shift, they’ll work primary, then an off premises calls, each for 12 hours if possible.
“Primary means they’re up for the first call and they have a one-minute response time,” Mackedanz explained. “And the off premise call is a time where they can be delayed in making that response. Our recommended response time is approximately eight minutes.”
Then, like all jobs, there are the good days, when few calls come in, and the bad days, when calls don’t stop.
Mackedanz said it’s possible crews would work a 24-hour shift.
Do they get a little bit ragged after that?
“They do,” he said. “Our goal is to not have them scheduled the next day. We have policies on not making that happen, too.”
And he said crews can always request a break if they’re tired.
Folks that work the 48-hour shifts are relieved periodically.
“They have plenty of rest and rest periods,” Mackedanz said. “Before they would work 48 hours we would have somebody come in and cover them.”
Asked if the cuts worry him, Mackedanz said, “Of course it does. It’s finding that balance and it’s working through those balances. We also have to be fiscally responsible and funding that balance of fiscal responsibility.”
Training takes anywhere from four months to two years, depending on whether attendants want an associate’s degree.
Locally some attendants have signed a petition to unionize in Park Rapids and Walker, citing dangerous working conditions with no sleep.
But neither side would go on the record to discuss what conditions might be prompting union talks.
“I’m not able to answer any of those types of questions at this time,” Mackedanz said.