Volunteer emergency squads struggle with calls

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 9, 2003

An Emergency 911 call last Wednesday highlighted a staffing problem many volunteer emergency squads face when daytime jobs prevent volunteers from responding.

The county Emergency 911 center received a medical call from a home about four miles outside of Columbiana at 3:08 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 3. Immediately, the 911 center dispatched the Southeast Shelby Rescue squad, located in Columbiana.

The only problem was, nobody from the squad responded to the call, and the man died in the hospital on Sunday.

Usually, a rescue squad responds along with an ambulance in the Southeast response region, according to Mark Bray, chief of the Southeast Shelby Rescue squad.

On Wednesday, an ambulance from Saginaw responded to the call within about 20 minutes.

The Southeast Shelby Rescue squad could have responded within four minutes, but nobody from the volunteer squad was available.

Alma Higgins, a Shelby resident at the scene of the call, said she believed the man would have had a better chance at survival if the Southeast Shelby Rescue squad could have responded.

&uot;That 10 or 15 minutes could have saved that man’s life,&uot; Higgins said.

Each residence in the county has a rescue agency responsible in case of an Emergency 911 call, Bray said.

The location of last Wednesday’s call belongs to the Southeast Shelby Rescue squad, along with about 6,400 other homes in the all-volunteer squad’s 200 square mile coverage area.

Chuck Payne, president of the board of directors for the Southeast Shelby Rescue squad, said the response problem has to do with daytime volunteers and money. Each of the 25 squad members rely on other jobs for income. No member of the Southeast Shelby Rescue squad receives a single dollar in pay for their work at the agency. Also, about 90 percent of the squad members volunteer for fire departments in the county.

Volunteers who work at agencies such as the Southeast Shelby Rescue squad don’t do it for money.

&uot;If there are people here, it’s because they want to be,&uot; Bray said.

As the county grows, so have demands on emergency services.

In 2002, the Southeast Shelby Rescue squad received 1,492 calls, an average of about four per day. The squad fielded 82 calls when it formed in 1982, an average of one call every five days.

The growing call volume is becoming too much for an all-volunteer agency, Bray said.

&uot;You cannot depend solely on volunteers,&uot; he said. &uot;The days of the people in Shelby County depending on volunteers (exclusively) are quickly coming to an end.&uot;

Most of the time, someone with the squad can respond when a call comes in from the county 911 center. But not at 3:08 p.m. on Dec. 3. Following the incident, Bray and Payne said they went down the list of all 25 volunteers to verify why each failed to respond.

&uot;Some people work locally and can leave their job, but not on every call,&uot; Bray said. &uot;If it

would have come an hour later, there wouldn’t have been a problem. We could’ve had patient contact in four minutes if somebody would have been sitting here.&uot;

Two paid staff members during daytime peak hours would ensure response to every call at all times, Bray said.

Other agencies use a variety of methods to pay staff, such as mandatory dues, mail out requests, taxes or county commission support.

The Southeast Shelby Rescue squad is a non-profit volunteer organization under an informal contract with the city of Columbiana and Wilsonville.

Since about half of annual calls to the squad come from within Columbiana city limits, the Southeast Shelby Rescue board receives half of its operating budget from Columbiana.

The city paid $45,000 of the squad’s $90,000 budget this year, supplemented with an extra $8,000 from Wilsonville.

Columbiana also provides the squad with facilities. The volunteers are responsible for the difference.

The rest of the budget depends on fund-raisers such as mail-out requests for dues from businesses and households within the squad’s coverage area. Each year, the squad asks for $30 from each household, and $100 from each business. Only about 22 percent return the request, Payne said.

Some people don’t realize the importance of rescue service until emergencies strike, according to Payne.

&uot;They don’t need it, ’til they need it,&uot; Payne said.

Other areas of the county such as Calera, Alabaster, Pelham and Chelsea have paid emergency medical service.

As Payne and Bray continue to focus on improving the squad and stretching their resources, they struggle with last Wednesday’s missed call.

&uot;We’re as upset about this as the family is,&uot; Bray said.