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Area EMS crews feel strain

Western North Dakota ambulance teams said they have seen an increase in trauma cases.

"There are more responses to traffic accidents, alcohol and/or drug incidents and violence than in years past," Dickinson Ambulance spokesman Lynn Hartman said, adding it's not by large numbers but it is increasing.

Dunn County Emergency Manager Denise Brew agreed, adding with an increase in population the number and types of calls ambulance teams are responding to have really changed.

"We used to respond every once in a while to the nursing home, and maybe a few accidents but things have changed so much that now when we get the nursing home call we are all surprised and respond, 'That's it, just the nursing home?'"

All the ambulance crews report that many of the cases they are responding to are traffic accidents.

"The amount of traffic we are seeing just keeps going up, and with that so do the number of accidents," Brew said.

City of Williston Fire Chief Alan Hanson said in his area it is risky just trying to get to a call because the traffic is so different.

"You really are putting your life on the line," Hanson said.

Hartman said with the increase in traffic response times can be longer so in an effort to compensate for that the team has learned to leave quicker.

"We try to use our lights and sirens only when necessary and we always drive as carefully and cautiously as possible," Hartman said. "It's important to respond quickly but there is no reason to take unnecessary risks."

Hanson added emergency responders in his area have looked into getting body armor for the first time.

"Law enforcement is stretched, we are stretched, and there has been a lot more fights," Hanson said. "Bigger fights where there are more people involved than one or three drunk people and domestic violence is up to."

He said such armor has not been purchased yet, but the type being considered is for stabbings more than ballistics.

Curt Halmrast, president of the North Dakota Emergency Medical Services Association, said the 17-county oil patch area is "in a crisis within a crisis" because fewer people are volunteering for the ambulance service, yet the population is increasing so the ambulances have more need and fewer people to respond to it.

"It's a very grim picture out west," Halmrast said.

Mike Sandry, manager of the Oaks Ambulance, agrees, adding fewer people are volunteering because they can get paid better elsewhere.

"Besides the better pay, other reasons less and less people are volunteering for the ambulance is because housing is short and the cost of living is higher in western North Dakota," Sandry said.

He added the EMS is looking at trying to find funding to pay volunteers in an effort to attract more people.

The Dickinson Area Ambulance pays its employees, Hartman said. "Our problem is more with recruiting paramedics. We are actively seeking them but the trouble is we can't find them housing."

He added rent is so high it's hard to say "Welcome to Dickinson but there is no place for you to live."

Hartman said right now they have paramedics coming to Dickinson for two to four days at a time.

Dunn County Emergency Manager Denise Brew said ambulance teams in Dunn County are facing the same troubles.

"We have a good number of volunteers," Brew said. "But our paramedic is on a volunteer basis so we are getting assistance from Bowman and Dickinson when he is not available."

Williston had trouble recruiting for a few months, Hanson said adding they have since found one.

Bowman Ambulance spokeswoman Michele Tarter said they, too, have struggled with recruitment.

"No more than usual though," she added. "The oil boom hasn't affected us to a great extent yet. We just have a smaller population."

One thing Brew said hasn't changed as far as ambulance service in oil country is response times and care.

"The summer construction and increased traffic has added stress, but we are still able to get where we need to be fast and provide the best care possible," Brew said.

She added one good thing the increase in population and need is that the Dunn County ambulance teams have been able to update equipment.

Hanson said emergency responders in his area are working on a program through the state to get hydrogen sulfide training and equipment.

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that smells like rotten eggs that can be found in Bakken oil.

He added he is hoping to get a grant for it and also later be able to offer the training to other emergency responders in western North Dakota.