BUCKLEY — The volunteer-run Buckley Ambulance Service’s struggles to keep its roster staffed with enough licensed emergency medical technicians should soon be coming to an end.
Sometime later this year, the ambulance service expects to have 17 more licensed EMTs available on-call to assist with emergency medical situations. The additional personnel will more than double the ambulance service’s existing roster of 12.
"Years back, we had 35, so it isn’t that we’re foreign to (having that large of a roster)," said the ambulance service’s medical director, Ron Lenington.
Still, those days are long gone.
"You could see that within a couple of years, we were not going to have the staff to operate the (ambulance) system," Lenington said. "It was that simple. The need (for more EMTs) was really traumatic."
With more EMTs needed, Lenington enlisted the help of OSF Healthcare East Central Illinois EMS to offer a class starting in January for area residents to become trained as basic EMTs. The class — which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at Christ Lutheran High School in Buckley — began with 19 people enrolled and still had 17 enrolled as of last week, just a little over a month before the course’s May 5 end.
Once they receive their certificate of course completion, each of them will qualify to take a test offered by the Illinois Department of Public Health in order to receive their EMT-basic license.
The goal is for the class’ participants to eventually join either ambulance services in Buckley or nearby Cissna Park as paid, on-call licensed basic EMTs, Lenington said.
Each class participant’s $700 course tuition is being covered by either the Buckley or Cissna Park fire protection districts. In return, the class participants — all of whom live within 10 miles of Buckley — are required to commit, once they complete the course and receive their license, to work on-call for the Buckley or Cissna Park ambulance services for at least four years, which is the time frame for which their initial licenses will be valid, Lenington said.
Similar courses had been offered in the past in Champaign, Kankakee or Watseka, for example, but never in Buckley. Holding the class locally, Lenington noted, was meant to help make it more convenient for interested area residents to complete it.
"We’re just blessed that these guys (at OSF) put the class on here," Lenington said. "Or we don’t know where we would have been. Because we couldn’t get that many people to drive to Champaign (to take the class)."
Les Mennenga, the lead EMS education specialist for OSF East Central Illinois EMS, is one of the course’s instructors, with the other being Andy Jones. Mennenga said that as of last week, all 17 remaining class enrollees were on track to complete the class.
"This is a really good class," Mennenga said. "To be honest, I had my reservations about it, but they’re doing well. I’m really pleased."
The course participants have been learning initial medical care, including CPR and hemorrhage control, and trauma assessment, which involves identifying various medical emergencies — anything from allergic reactions to chest pain to trauma, Mennenga said.
With an EMT-basic license, they will be able to ride on an ambulance, assist with medical emergencies, and even administer a few types of drugs, including those given for treatment of asthma, allergic reactions, chest pain, low blood-sugar and opioid overdoses, Mennenga said.
The EMT-basic license is not the lowest level of an EMT license. That would be the license for emergency medical responders (EMRs), formerly known as first responders. Lenington said it is hoped that the class participants, once they get their EMT-basic licenses, will choose to someday advance to the EMT-intermediate level and, perhaps, the paramedic level, the highest level they can achieve.
The ambulance service’s roster currently includes eight people with EMT-basic licenses but only four with EMT-intermediate licenses, Lenington said.
"We would hope that we’d get a couple of them to go ahead and advance," Lenington said. "That way, we can keep our service."
The Buckley Ambulance Service is an "intermediate advanced life support" service, meaning it is limited on what types of things its EMTs can do when compared with paramedic services, Lenington said.
"Generally, though, by the time (those other things are) needed, we’re pretty well at the hospital," Lenington said.
The ambulance service, started in the late 1970s, responds to anywhere from 150 to 200 medical emergencies per year in its service territory, which includes an area spanning from Buckley to Roberts to near Cissna Park, Loda and Thawville.
It is indeed a rarity for such a small town to still have its own ambulance service. With its reduced staff, Lenington had explored the possibility of selling the ambulance service to another ambulance system, but not one took him up on the offer.
"Over the years, we’ve looked into all the alternatives, and there’s never been an alternative because nobody wants us," Lenington said. "The bigger systems, they don’t want it because, ‘How do you make it cost effective? How do you put (an ambulance) up here (in Buckley) and pay a paramedic staff or even an intermediate (level) staff to sit here?’ It doesn’t play. As much as we’ve tried, as many systems as we’ve talked to, it wasn’t affordable."
Keeping an ambulance stationed in the Buckley area is "essential," though, given the town’s distance from any other ambulance service, Lenington said.
Thankfully, Lenington said, the ongoing EMT-basic class is ensuring the service will continue.
"Unfortunately, Ron’s right," Mennenga said. "If they were to close their doors on this ambulance service, you’re not going to have an ambulance in town and they’re going to be responding from somewhere else, because it does come down to a cost issue.
"Right now, the citizens in the village don’t even really understand how blessed they are to have that ambulance in town. If we can play a small part to keep it going, then we’re willing to do that."