Florida Retirement Community Needs EMS Volunteers
BY LOIS KINDLE
The Tampa Tribune
SUN CITY CENTER Residents of South Shore's largest retirement community enjoy free ambulance service, but a shortage of volunteers has idled one of Sun City Center Emergency Squad's ambulances.
"We turn down 10 to 12 calls per day right now because of staffing," said Noreen Schramm, chief of the 440-member squad. "When that happens, we have to refer them to 911."
Ideally, three of the squad's four ambulances should be available and ready to go at all times, with the fourth kept behind as backup, Schramm said. But the current volunteer shortage has precluded that.
"We're a 24/7 operation," said Jan Huber, one of the squad's three assistant chiefs. "We have eight teams of 30 to 40 people who work every eight days in shifts of six to 12 hours. Every one of us, including the chief, is a volunteer."
Staffing and scheduling are complex, Huber said.
The squad currently has 40 emergency medical technicians, 54 drivers and 96 emergency medical responders. To effectively run three ambulances on eight teams, the squad needs 72 EMTs, 96 drivers and 96 emergency responders.
Squad members' duties vary.
More than half of the squad have direct patient contact and work in crews of three per ambulance. They provide basic life support services -- everything from first aid to cardiac arrests. About 60 percent of the calls they respond to stem from falls.
Two-person crews in vans transport and assist people in wheelchairs who need to go to the doctor or receive dialysis, radiation or other medical treatments.
The last time the squad had enough staffing for eight crews and three ambulances was about four years ago, Huber said.
"The poor economy forced many of our younger retirees back into the work force, and away from volunteering in the community," Schramm said.
Plus, not everyone is cut out to work with the rescue squad.
"It takes a certain kind of person to volunteer for an emergency squad," Schramm said. "The training is difficult and intense.
"It's a serious commitment to waking up the gray matter, learning something new and then becoming very proficient at it."
Sometimes, new residents need a little time before making that kind of commitment.
"When I first retired in 1977, I played golf six days a week," said Huber. "Then three years ago, when I joined the squad and became an EMT, I realized there was more to life than playing. There's a gratification and satisfaction that comes with this job that's hard to describe."
Staffing also drops during the summer months due to the part-time nature of residency in Sun City Center. Some members live here only half the year.
That's where younger volunteers such as 22-year-old Nicole Miller can help. The University of South Florida graduate began volunteering at the squad about two and a half years ago, when she was taking EMT classes at Hillsborough Community College.
"I started just for the hands-on experience, which was invaluable," she said. "But now I feel like I'm part of a big family, and I really enjoy being there. My grandmother lives in Sun City Center, and when I'm volunteering, I feel like I'm helping other people's grandparents."
The squad is seeking students, who must be at least 18, Schramm said. Younger volunteers can earn community service hours and get tuition assistance on EMT classes at HCC.
"It's a really good choice for young people looking at this type of work as a career path or to establish some work experience on their resumes," she said. "It teaches them commitment and responsibility."
But the heart and soul of the squad are seniors, ages 55 and older.
Everyone starts out as an emergency medical responder, handling patient histories and documentation. They receive 52 hours of free, on-the-job training to receive certification, Huber said.
Responders who wish to become emergency medical technicians -- the people who assess patients on an ambulance crew and recommend when additional help is required -- must take an additional 250 hours of training and be licensed by the state. The squad foots the bill for the training after a responder has volunteered for a minimum of nine months.
Other squad members -- about 180 of them -- cook and clean, dispatch, receive visitors, maintain vehicles and perform clerical or other operational tasks.
Licensed by the state in 1964, the squad's annual operating budget is $2 million. Through October, its members have made 5,220 ambulance runs and provided 1,348 van transports this year.
"We're totally self-sufficient," Schramm said. "We're a 501(c) 3 nonprofit that exists primarily on the donations of Sun City Center and Kings Point residents, and nonprofit groups like the Interfaith Council and Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center.
"We're not supported by the county, state or federal government, and we're not part of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue."
When it comes to the residents of Sun City Center, though, the two organizations work hand-in-hand.
"(The emergency squad) makes a great contribution, not only to the department but to the entire community," said Capt. Ray Yeakley, a spokesman for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. "Their basic life support service frees up fire rescue personnel to respond to a greater number of calls and more serious, life-threatening situations."
For additional information on the Sun City Center Emergency Squad, or to learn more about becoming a volunteer, call (813) 633-1411.
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