Volunteers to the rescue

The Steichen family of Hitterdal — Jacob, his mother Shelley and wife Abby — are longtime volunteers with the Ulen Rescue Squad. They say more volunteers are badly needed to maintain Clay County’s rural first responder programs. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson
hansonnanc@gmail.com

In an emergency, help is just minutes away … when you live in Moorhead and the rest of the metro area.
In rural Clay County — not so fast. That 9-1-1 call that’s picked up so quickly within the city limits can take half an hour, 45 minutes or even longer to bring relief in the most distant corners of the 1,053-sq.-mile county. While an ambulance and sheriff’s deputies are speeding to your side, it’s your neighbors – literally, your neighbors – who may make the difference between life and death.
“That’s why our volunteer first responders are so vital,” says Clay County emergency management director Gabe Tweten. “The rescue units in Felton, Ulen, Glyndon and Hawley make all the difference. Out in the county, they’re usually the first on the scene of an accident or a medical emergency.
“But they’re having a harder and harder time recruiting the volunteers they need.” The need is serious in Ulen, Hawley and Glyndon, he notes, but downright critical in Felton. There, only one volunteer has been available to take emergency calls in the farm country directly north of Moorhead for the last two years. “Without more recruits, they may have to disband,” Gabe warns.
That’s why he’s working with area small-town rescue units to spread a message that could well save people’s lives: Be the neighbor your neighbors can’t live without. Find out more about volunteering.
The Steichens, who live between Hitterdal and Ulen, are the kind of committed rescuers that Gabe is talking about. As first responders with the Ulen Rescue Squad, Shelley Steichen and her son and daughter-in-law, Jake and Abby, are pulling a greater load as the number of local recruits has dropped off over the years.
“Sometimes the unit gets one or two calls a week – sometimes, more. You never know,” says Jake, who serves as president of the Ulen rescue group, with its dozen or so active volunteers. He cites one memorable weekend when his members were called to 14 emergencies, reaching them well before professional EMTs could get there. “We had to Lifeflight five of them,” he remembers. “It was wild. It pretty much ate up the whole weekend.”
Shelley Steichen has been a member of the squad since a few years after it began 40 years ago. “A car ran off the highway into our pasture. I could see working with the rescue squad was a good thing,” she recalls.
She has been on the rescue squad board of directors ever since, including several stints as president. (“There aren’t all that many to draw from,” she laughs.) She describes the 1980s, when their equipment included one pager to field calls, which were then passed on from the local nursing home; a volunteer would carry it for three days, then hand it off to another. Today each member has a pager; cell phones and GPS make communication far quicker and easier; and Red River Dispatch connects responding units, rallying resources and directing them into the field.
“When a page came in, I’d pile the kids in the car and take off,” she remembers. That’s where Jake – 3 at the time – got his first taste of volunteering, along with his 9-month-old twin brothers. “We’d usually have three or four volunteers show up at a time. We’d leave the kids in the back seat with strict orders to stay there and go do what we could until the ambulance arrived.”
Then and now, dramatic car accidents and farm mishaps make up the smaller portion of calls. Most times, the local first responders arrive on the scene of medical emergencies, from relatively minor calls for help to cardiac arrest and other major incidents. Their role is to assess the situation, administer first aid and pass on what they’ve learned to the emergency medical techs who man the F-M or Brownsville ambulances.
Volunteer first responders like the Steichens are trained to handle the front end of emergency calls. Each must complete 40 hours of training, offered by F-M Ambulance, along with an hour or two of continuing education at monthly meetings at the Ulen fire hall. Each is equipped with a jump bag stocked with first-aid basics, including bandages and gauze, blood pressure cuff, stethoscope, a bag to clear oral airways, a bag valve mask and gloves. They carry and administer no drugs beyond Tylenol, except for epinephrine to draw for anaphylactic shock and glucose gel and insulin for diabetic emergencies.
Their rig once carried “jaws of life.” Jake’s class helped raised the money to buy them when he was a sixth grade; since then, they’ve been refurbished and passed on to the Hitterdal volunteer fire department (over which he also presides). A grant from American Crystal recently enabled them to buy a LUCAS chest compression system that delivers the basics of CPR mechanically. “It’s a lifesaver,” he says without irony. “We sometimes have had to administer CPR for an hour until help arrived.”
Unlike volunteer fire departments, rescue units like Ulen’s get no governmental support of any kind. The Ulen squad operates on an annual budget of perhaps $2,500, almost all from local donations plus an occasional private grant. One source is memorials gathered after local funerals, often in appreciation of the service they provide. Squad members are not paid. Neither are they covered by the kind of local firemen’s relief associations that often make modest contributions to volunteers’ retirement accounts.
Finding helping hands is far more difficult than it was in the days when Shelley first joined the Ulen corps. Why? She, Jake and Abby suggest a mixed bag of reasons, starting with fewer farm families who have the kind of flexibility she and neighbors had back when their own families were young.
Daytime calls are always tough. “Ninety percent of the people around here work – if not in Ulen or Hitterdal or Flom, then in Fargo-Moorhead,” Abby suggests. “They have a hard time getting away, and it can be a long trip back here.” She works part-time as a nursing assistant at Sanford in Fargo, along with caring for her and Jake’s three youngsters. Jake adds that his own employer, RDO Equipment, has been outstanding in releasing him to answer calls when emergencies arise during his shift. His mother drives a bus route for Ulen-Hitterdal Public Schools.
“Families are so much busier year round with sports and school activities,” Shelley suggests. “Summer used to be quiet. No more.” Emergency director Tweten adds that some research suggests younger generations are less willing to volunteer than their elders, who had deeper ties to the community.
But the rewards, they all agree, are more than worth the inconvenience. “It can be tough to work on your friends or their parents or your own grandparents,” Jake concedes, “both as the patient and their families. It does take a toll on you.”
“But it’s nice to know that you’ve really helped somebody,” Abby interjects.
Her husband adds the everlasting question. “If we weren’t there to help, who would be?”
Gabe, who’s also a Ulen resident, says that all it takes to volunteer is to step forward. While a medical background might be ideal, some of the county’s most faithful first responders have signed up without a bit of prior background; the thorough training, now conveniently offered online, brings them up to speed.
“Volunteering is still a big part of small-town culture. Things may have changed a lot, but that spirit’s still there,” he comments. “We’ve got to be there for each other. Sometimes that’s the only way we can get things done.”
To learn more about opportunities to volunteer as a rural first responder, call Gabe Tweten at the Joint Law Enforcement Center, (218) 299-7357.

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