First Responders rebuild
It was a matter as simple as carrying an EpiPen.
Those were the first things to go when Hubbard First Response and Rescue cut expenses after weathering a financial scandal two years ago that left the squad demoralized, depleted and despondent.
They were down to eight people on the all-volunteer squad.
In 2011, the squad's former treasurer was given a year and a day in jail for embezzling $32,000 over a two-year period.
But squad members said they began receiving only $50 a month in restitution and checked into the case, only to discover the restitution payments had been lowered by the court.
The debt will allegedly now be paid off in 2063. More belt tightening was necessary. The EpiPens, which cost $160 apiece, were the first item cut. Responders would have had to carry two apiece, one dosed for an adult, and one for a child. They have an expiration of six months, so the investment would be made again and again. They opted instead to keep their defibrillators operational.
Then, in the summer of 2011, a man got stung by a bee in a remote area of northern Hubbard County.
"I'm dead," he allegedly told his family.
That prediction sadly came true. Paramedics could not get him to a hospital in time to get him a shot of epinephrine, which could have save saved his life.
"They drove by three guys' houses on the way in," said member Jason "Buck" Johnson of the number of qualified medical personnel that should have been equipped. "You've got a certain window you've got to get it inside of you. We met them at Two Inlets Road and started CPR, but we were too late."
If they'd had EpiPens, he might have been saved, Johnson speculated.
That may have been the low point for the squad, which voluntarily answers calls in out-of-the-way places not even some ambulance personnel get to.
Using their own gas and driving their own vehicles, the men and woman in the lime and gray vests have become fixtures at crash scenes, fires and other emergencies, lending expert hands.
"It's the busiest time of the year," president Jason Thelen said. "Last year was over 350 calls."
The squad is partially funded by 13 townships and donations.
Thelen estimates it costs $1,750 to $2,000 to educate volunteers through the first series of classes. Johnson said if you add the cost of outfitting each responder with a crash bag and other necessities, that cost rises to $3,000 a person.
"We've got all of our bare necessities in each one of our vehicles," Thelen said. "If we have an accident down south of town or heart attack and if I'm 20 miles north, unless it's a lot of injuries or a big car accident, I won't go on it because I'll know other responders will cover it.
"If we can't cover it in 20 minutes we won't go," he added. "We get on the radio if we need more help. We don't get reimbursement for any of our gas. It's strictly voluntary. It actually costs us money to be on the team.
"We're one of the very few volunteer groups in the state of Minnesota that doesn't get paid for anything," Thelen said. "We operate strictly on a town fund basis. We don't have a lot of extra money. Otherwise you get people who just want to join just to get paid."
In the summer of 2012, the squad was called to Itasca State Park to help clear a July blowdown and get the park re-opened.
"We had one chainsaw," Thelen recalled. "We went up there and cleared the roads for them."
Now the squad is making a comeback.
Their ranks, down to eight a couple years ago, have swelled to 22.
It was the annual Christmas party last year when a Ducks Unlimited member keyed them onto a good fundraiser.
"It sounded like a lot of money to put out there, sticking our neck out, basically," Thelen said. "When we found out in February we were only going to get $50 a month for reimbursement (from the embezzlement restitution), we decided to take a chance.
"Some were for it. Some were against it," he said.
They purchased a gambling license for one day only, Oct. 2, 2012, and had 2,500 calendars printed up. The calendars featured important hunting dates and photos of guns that they'd purchased from Park Rapids dealers Delaney's Sports Center and Smoky Hills Outdoor Store at a reduced rate.
"We even had some gun manufacturers donate a few," Johnson said.
There were anxious moments. The calendars didn't arrive until late July.
"We farmed them out to different businesses," to sell, Thelen said. "Everybody did a heck of a job selling them. We sold them for $40 for a chance to win 117 guns altogether and if you won a gun, you weren't out. Your name goes back in the drawing. We spin the barrel."
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, a new winner's name is posted on the squad's website, www.hubbardfirstresponse.org.
Two winners will be drawn each week for the next year.
"We broke $40,000 and purchased all new radios, narrowband," Johnson said. "We still need a base station. Our goal is for a base. We're now in the brainstorming phase. We need a place to conduct training, keeping our paperwork locked up. We have no place to conduct business."
"We had to turn people away," Thelen recalled of those final few weeks of the sale. "We could have probably sold 3,000 to 3,500 calendars. Once the word got out. The first three weeks was trying to push them. We had them at gas stations and people saw them. We went from there to people calling you begging for a calendar."
Next year they'll be better organized and offer more guns, the men said.
You still have to pass a background check to claim your weapon at the vendor.
"We're not just handing over the guns," Johnson said.
If you're prohibited by law from owning a firearm, you can get the equivalent of a gift certificate from the store for the amount of the gun, the men said.
"We'll do baby steps to start re-equipping," Johnson said. "The persons who live furthest from the ambulance will get the first ones. (EpiPens.)
"We narrowed up all our extra trainings. We put a cap on one a year."
Both men said the cost of keeping each squad member certified, and of re-certifying when mandated, is an ongoing cost.
"We're not back on our feet but we're recovering," Thelen said. "We're trying to be self-sufficient so that we don't have to rely on the taxpayers.
"People don't really know that we're volunteers," he added. "We can be standing out on the ice at the Fishing Derby and people walk by and say, 'What a waste of taxpayers' money.' I look at them and want to say, 'I'm not getting paid to stand here.' That's the biggest thing that bothers you."
They are slowly building a fleet of rescue vehicles, most donated.
Future gun drawings will follow, Thelen promised.
And a bitter lesson was learned.
"Before we trusted people," Johnson said. "Now the bank statements are brought to each meeting and the bank statements are verified by all the officers. We meet once a month."