'I don't know how you can ever describe the dedication'
After 40 years, ambulance service to celebrate volunteers, recruit new first responders
May 22, 2014
Carroll County Ambulance Service first responders and Carroll Fire Department firefighters used the Jaws of Life on an old car parked outside of Kuemper High School in April 2013 and acted out rescue techniques on a mannequin in a demonstration to high school students the day before their senior prom. As it celebrates 40 years, the ambulance service is working with students in an attempt to attract new volunteers.
Pat Venteicher knows what it's like to be pulled from bed or called from a work meeting to go out on an ambulance call - without pay.
The 39-year-old Carroll resident, who works as director of operations at The Graphic Edge, has volunteered part time for 15 years as an emergency medical technician with Carroll County Ambulance Service and a firefighter with Carroll Fire Department.
Volunteers receive pages and have the option of responding if they're free, he said. For more than a decade, he has often left work or home to help with serious calls. It cuts into his sleep, work and free time - but he keeps doing it.
"Each call gives you a smile on your face when you're able to help someone in need and they simply say those two words of 'thank you,'" Venteicher said. "Not every call is a fun call, if someone's family member or friend passes away, but people appreciate it, because it's people they know taking care of their family members and driving them to the hospital."
As it celebrates 40 years of existence this year, Carroll County Ambulance Service will recognize its volunteers with an event from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday at the Graham Park shelter house. It's open to the public, and those in attendance can expect pulled pork, hot dogs, brats - and lots of hamburgers. All food and supplies were donated, Ambulance Director Patrick Gray said.
"I remember when we celebrated 20 years; I thought that was a huge milestone, and we're doubling that now," Gray said. "We want to celebrate the volunteers, because they're the backbone of the system."
The service responds to 9-1-1 calls for more than 20,000 residents of the county who live spread across almost 600 square miles, Gray said. It receives almost 2,000 calls each year. He added that ambulance employees and volunteers also respond to fires and calls involving hazardous materials and high-risk law-enforcement situations. The ambulance service processes insurance claims for patients at its office and provides public-safety education to schools and other organizations.
Gray estimated there are between 75 and 100 volunteer emergency medical responders and technicians in Carroll County - but there used to be twice that, he said.
"Recruiting younger people, and getting them involved, is getting harder," he said.
Gray hopes the Saturday celebration will both recognize past, current and retired volunteers, as well as encourage others to become volunteers.
Those interested in becoming first responders with the ambulance service have several options. Emergency medical responders go through about 30 hours of initial training, which costs about $600. Emergency medical technicians receive more specialized training, doubling the time and cost. For those positions, which are typically volunteer spots, ambulance services or associations try to reimburse those who undergo the training, Gray said.
Paramedic training is much more extensive and involves nine months of training at a college, often in Ankeny, Des Moines or Sioux City; the cost can reach $10,000, but those positions are usually paid, Gray said. There is also training available to help nurses transition from working in a controlled environment to an uncontrolled one.
Many volunteers stay for years, completing periodic training throughout their tenure with the ambulance service.
"I don't know how you can ever describe the dedication it takes to do it," Gray said.
The ambulance service's first director, Larry Cruchelow, started the service in 1974 and built up the department for almost 20 years. Its second director, Bill Fish, began leading the service in 1993 before turning over the directorship to Gray, who hopes to build up the service's volunteer and workforce, in part by interacting with local students in Carroll's high schools and at Des Moines Area Community College.
Along with Gray, Carroll County currently employs nine full-time paramedics, whose time with the service ranges from three years to 20. Another full-time employee will begin working with the crew in June and will begin paramedic training in August.
Gray knew he wanted to be a paramedic since he was a young boy in Keokuk who lived across the street from a hospital and ran to watch whenever ambulances came in. He started working in Carroll as a paramedic in 1989 and served on the city's police force from 1999 until 2013, when he rejoined the ambulance service as its director.
"The dedication it takes for some of the guys - I worked here 10 years, then was gone for 15 and then came back, and some people are still here," Gray said. "They've spent years volunteering. And their employers let them leave their jobs for calls. That's huge."
Although Venteicher will be out of town during the celebration, he appreciates the recognition for volunteers. The work can be demanding, but it would be tough to leave, he said - in part because of the close friends he's made during the past 15 years, and in part because of the decreasing numbers of volunteers.
"It's hard to say 'I'm done,' knowing there might not be people willing to step in and take your spot," he said.
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