OUTLOOK 2023: Shenango adds community ambulance as department's volunteer ranks grow

Feb. 25—SHENANGO TOWNSHIP — David Garon heard the motorized latch in the ambulance as it grabbed the stretcher and mechanically eased it into the vehicle.

"We're really proud of that," said Garon, the assistant EMS chief with the Shenango Township Volunteer Fire Department. "We got this so nobody has to struggle to lift the stretcher into the ambulance."

Last fall the fire department upped its game by adding an ambulance service. This is a 24-hour-a-day service to the community.

They've also responded to emergency calls outside of the township if other ambulance services are busy.

In all, the service has responded to over 100 calls to date, Justin Barnes, the department's fire chief said. Including ambulance and fire, the department, he expects to have 600 to 800 total calls this year compared to 335 two years ago.

What's more heartening is that the number of volunteers at the department has surged to 60 compared to 35 to 40 two years ago, Barnes said.

"A lot of our ambulance people are cross-trained as firefighters." he said.

With more hands, the department can respond to calls 3 to 4 minutes faster than before, Barnes said.

This is believed to be the only community-operated ambulance service in Mercer County.

Jamestown Volunteer Fire Department halted its ambulance service on Jan. 1, 2018. The culprit: staffing. It was down to four qualified medical staff, which wasn't enough to operate the volunteer ambulance service.

More than 30 in Shenango Township's fire department are qualified to work for its ambulance service.

It's classified as an Advanced Life Support IV service, which means it can handle higher level medical treatment such as administering drugs.

One project underway is educating residents that the service is available, said Jen Coulter, the department's EMS chief.

"Some folks don't realize we're doing this," Coulter said.

On one call, Garon came within a few minutes of delivering a new baby into the world.

"The woman had the baby just moments before we got there," he said. "But she had her family around her and it ended well."

The township's emergency service coverage includes a more-than-8-mile stretch of Interstate 80 that slices through the municipality's northern tier.

So far the ambulance service hasn't handled a major injury on the highway.

"We haven't had much snow this winter," Garon said, hence fewer major accidents on that section of the highway.

State regulations requires staff to undergo continual education. Dealing with cardiac patients often means life-or-death medical decisions must be made on the spot.

"Cardiac arrest cases isn't something we do often," Coulter said. "But it is something that really, really matters."

This has been a frugal startup.

The township kicked in around $110,000 from its American Rescue Plan funds. A used ambulance was bought, and other grants paid for equipment.

Accommodations for crews to sack out and relax are — in a word — spartan. Two child-sized beds and a couple of worn recliners sit inside the fire department's garage just a few feet from the vehicles.

"We're working on it," said of Garon of improving conditions.

Barnes agreed.

"We know the accommodations aren't ideal," he said. "We've been working our hearts out on the ambulance project for three years now. and we know we have to improve conditions for our people."

The community's 3-mill fire department tax can be used for the ambulance service, Tom Hubert, chairman of the Shenango Township supervisors, said.

"For the life-saving services it provides, this is money well-worth spent," Hubert said.

Some of the ambulance team gets a small stipend, he said. Other funding sources include some reimbursement from people's medical insurance coverage and from public donations.

There's been no need for supervisors to meddle into the ambulance service operations, Hubert said.

"This is a well-run service, and everyone seems to get along," he added.

If all goes well, Hubert sees the possibility of adding another ambulance by the end of the year.

Even top ambulance crew members don't make much money, Coulter said. But there are other rewards.

"It's good to see someone you treated and happen to see weeks later doing well," she said. "They don't know you. But it makes you feel good."