Lack of adequate staff, the rising cost of supplies and equipment, and added pressure on rural areas caused by summer tourism means Emergency Medical Services are stretched thin all over Wisconsin. A new grant aims to address this.

“When you call 911, you’re expecting somebody to show up, right?” said Alan DeYoung, executive director of the Wisconsin EMS Association. “There have been calls in our state where someone has called 911 for medical help and nobody has shown up.

“It’s not because they didn't want to,” DeYoung added. “It's the amount of resources. This lack of resources, sadly, has been going on for a long time.”

In late May, Gov. Tony Evers announced a $12 million EMS Flex Grant, part of a federal $22 million investment into emergency response in Wisconsin. Those funds are part of the American Rescue Plan Act, specifically for Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is now taking applications for EMS Flex Grant funds. All licensed EMS departments in Wisconsin are eligible. To apply, a service must complete the online form available through the DHS website by July 11.

‘This is life and death’

EMS Flex Grant funding can be used for new vehicles, training equipment and staffing. Finding people to staff EMS departments is the biggest crisis departments are facing, DeYoung said.

“This is life and death, literally. We're playing with life and death here by not having enough people to respond to calls,” DeYoung said. Wisconsin relies “very heavily” on volunteer-run departments and volunteers in general, he added.

In 2021, of the 803 EMS departments in Wisconsin 78.6% were volunteer-reliant. DeYoung said this dependence on volunteers to operate emergency medical services is not unique to Wisconsin. Roughly 75% of EMS across the U.S are volunteer EMS providers.

Volunteer departments depend on external funding through grants, donations and other forms of funding to maintain service. In many areas, EMS staffers are stretched thin. “A lot of volunteers are getting burned out,” said DeYoung.

The EMS Flex Grant is also designed to fund investments into services and operating expenses, and all EMS departments are eligible for funding, unlike the EMS Funding Assistance Program, which is only for “transporting ambulance services.”

Many first responder departments in Wisconsin do not provide emergency transportation. Although they are the first to respond to a medical emergency, they are not transport departments, which DeYoung said can hinder a department’s ability to obtain external funding.

In 39 states including Wisconsin, EMS departments are not considered essential services statewide, which means EMS does not have the same secured funding that recognized essential services often do. This is largely due to federal withdrawal of EMS support in the 1980s, which shifted EMS responsibility to the state level and sent funds to areas of need other than emergency medical services. In our state, EMS is considered essential only in towns.

“This flex grant really allows these departments that don't have that funding to be able to get some of the equipment they need, and some of the staffing in terms of training that they need, as well as just any supplies,” DeYoung said.

DeYoung said that EMS departments are experiencing a shortage of resources paired with a rise in cost of operations. The costs of supplies and equipment have risen 30% to 60% in the last six months to a year, DeYoung said.

Strain of summer tourism

Summer tourism also contributes to a strain on EMS services. Understaffed EMS departments lack the resources to maintain regular or quick responses in all areas of the state, particularly when there is an increased number of people.

“There are many rural areas (where) you’re going to wait a minimum of 30 minutes, if not upwards of 45 minutes, depending on how far away or when an accident happens,” DeYoung said. “Especially if somebody is camping or if they're hunting they might be harder to reach.”

The EMS Flex Grant is one starting point for routing resources into EMS departments, but DeYoung said there is much more that needs to be done.

“Funding for EMS has never been there, both on a local level and on a state level,” DeYoung said. “There's a lot more funding that's needed for getting us to a point where we have the proper supplies, the proper equipment, to be able to serve these communities.”