Ambulance Service Coping with Post-Covid World

The Norfolk Lions Club Ambulance is being pressed by a combination of factors as it faces a post-Covid world. Among them are decreasing volunteerism, a rising number of calls –many from neighboring Winsted—and the ever-increasing cost of doing business.

And the nature of the calls is changing, as well. Norfolk Chief of Service Kitty Hickcox said a larger number of responses are for mental health problems and drug-related emergencies. “There was an extreme uptick [in mental health] calls during Covid,” Hickcox said, “and it is still higher than pre-Covid.”

Connecticut regulations require two medically trained personnel on every run. “Usually, it is an EMT and EMR, as well as a driver,” she said. “There are a handful of times where we pass on a call because we don’t have enough people on the shift. Then, we have to go to mutual aid, usually from Winsted or North Canaan.”

Mutual aid can be a two-edged sword, however, and frequent calls from Winsted have pressed Norfolk’s crew. “Winsted benefits quite a bit,” she said. “More than 10 percent of our calls are to Winsted and [additional] calls probably gets cancelled the same number of times. Winsted could use a second full-time crew. As it is now, Norfolk and New Hartford pick up their slack.”

Hickcox said Winsted called on Norfolk 75 times in 2023, cancelling before the ambulance could arrive at least 40 times. Its in-town calls totaled 140, and it covered Colebrook, which is part of its coverage area, 27 times.

Because Norfolk has only one ambulance, the town is unprotected while the crew answers calls from neighboring towns.

She explained the domino effect that can result from mutual aid calls. If a town needs mutual aid, calls are routed through a list of ambulance services in neighboring communities until one can respond. It takes six minutes each time a call is forwarded to a new town. “The expectation is that you call 911 and an ambulance arrives in your yard,” Hickcox said. “But it can become a medical game of musical chairs. It can be 45 minutes that [a patient] lies on the floor.”

The Norfolk ambulance squad lost about 20 percent of its manpower during the pandemic but has succeeded in attracting enough volunteers to fill its ranks since then, sparing it the fate of other Northwest Connecticut towns that rely, at least in part, on paid EMTs. “But we always need volunteers,” said Hickcox. “That is probably our biggest challenge.”

If a town had to rely solely on a paid department it could cost more than $1 million annually.

“We have spent the last few years trying to fill the ranks. We have a fair number of retired people. We do really well with people in their 60s, who want a new challenge. We always say our volunteers range from 25 and 80.”

Many towns use junior corps to engage the next generation of volunteers, but Hickcox said Norfolk has no program for young people. “There aren’t enough kids in town,” she said, adding that Northwestern Regional School #7 no longer offers Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) or Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) classes.

Although there is no official program for young people in Norfolk, youths can still take part, however. “They can take an EMR class at 14 and an EMT class at 16, but they can’t be unsupervised until they are 18,” Hickcox said. 

There are always classes forming in nearby towns or online. Adults sometimes take month-long intensive training to earn certification. To qualify as an EMR requires 60 to 70 hours of instruction, while EMT courses consume some 250 hours. EMTs must take 40 hours of continuing education every other year. “It’s a long haul,” said Hickcox.

“A lot of people will say, ‘I’ll write you a check,’” she said. “I don’t want to say money isn’t important, but it’s not our biggest challenge. There’s always an excuse why they can’t join.”

Those who wish to volunteer can find application forms on the service’s website.

The Norfolk ambulance service is funded by the Norfolk Lions Club, in-kind support from the town, memorial contributions and donations. 

—Newsletter Editor

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