Jennifer Brooks
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Miles from the nearest hospital, rural Minnesotans have learned to rely on each other in an emergency.

When the call goes out for an ambulance, it’s unpaid volunteers who answer.

“We can’t give you pay. We can’t give you vacation,” said Stan Stocker, captain of the Le Center EMS, making his recruiting pitch for the volunteer ambulance service that serves 4,000 of his neighbors in south-central Minnesota. “There’s just nothing good about it — except the reward of the people you’re helping.”

Eighty percent of the state’s rural emergency medical services rely on volunteers, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

But it’s getting harder to find volunteers to answer the call.

Mark Griffith, executive director of the South Central Minnesota EMS System, works with a network of 800 to 1,000 volunteer EMTs across a nine-county region. They need twice that many volunteers to comfortably cover every shift and ambulance run. The Health Department estimates about 60% of volunteer ambulance services are short-staffed.

“I am in awe every day,” Griffith said of the volunteers doing twice the work with half the workforce. “Anybody who would give up nights and weekends and birthdays with their families to help a complete stranger, they deserve nothing less than the best I can give them. I think most people would probably agree.”

On Tuesday, state Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount, an EMT himself, will hold a listening session in St. Paul to discuss how the state can help its volunteer first responders — and how long the system can keep running on goodwill and good neighbors.

Longtime volunteers are getting older. Youngsters go away for college and stay away. It takes new residents awhile to put down the sort of deep community roots that send you down to the local college to enroll in months of EMT training so you can work a 12-hour unpaid ambulance shift on Christmas Eve.

Volunteers like Rhonda Truman-Ingebritson make the system work in places like Lake Crystal, Minn., a city of 2,500 midway between Mankato and Madelia. Twenty volunteers run the Lake Crystal Area Ambulance Service, working 12-hour shifts to cover the city and nearby townships.

Twenty volunteers isn’t enough, so the city contracts with an ambulance service in Mankato. But a call to Mankato means a 20- or 30-minute delay, and that’s a long time to wait when you’re doing chest compressions.

So Truman-Ingebritson and many of her colleagues volunteer for extra shifts. Fourteen to 16 shifts a month — 168 hours of unpaid labor on top of her full-time job and any quality time she might want to spend with her family and friends.

“People say, ‘I couldn’t do what you do because I can’t stand the sight of blood.’ You hear that all the time,” she said. “In truth, I used to pass out at the sight of blood. My very first call, a patient was bleeding quite profusely — I didn’t even think of it. It was all muscle memory at that point. I just walked in and I knew what I needed to do [to] keep them alive, and that’s exactly what I did.”

Minnesota is covered in a volunteer patchwork of first responders. In some remote areas, there isn’t even a town ambulance, just neighbors with a beeper and a med kit who hop in their cars to answer the call for help.

Back in Le Center, Stocker is celebrating half a dozen new volunteers this year.

“A lot of them have never seen blood or somebody else’s puke,” said Stocker, who has new recruits ride along with ambulances for a few months to make sure they’re cut out for the job. “Once they’ve been on a few calls, they’ve been at a few car accidents, we make sure they’re a good fit for this and they still want to do it. And then we’ll send them to school.”

The hours are long, the pay is nonexistent and there’s a good chance someone is going to throw up on your shoes. Why would anyone sign up for this?

“It’s self-rewarding,” said Stocker, who’s been doing this job for 26 years. The job doesn’t come with a paycheck, but he’s surrounded by neighbors who know the value of his work.

“People come up and say, ‘Thanks, man, you guys were there and Mom is doing so much better,’ or ‘Thank you for helping me,’ ” he said. “I just get overwhelmed with it.”

The volunteers are there for their neighbors on the worst days of their lives. Like the kid Stocker helped pull from beneath an overturned tractor, a boy he’d coached on a sixth-grade wrestling team.

“His leg was broken in probably 20 different places,” Stocker said. “But he was yelling at me because I was cutting off his brand-new boots. He was just yelling, ‘Do you know how long I had to work to get those boots?’ ”

The EMT couldn’t save the boots, but he saved the kid, who “comes and sees me all the time,” Stocker said, like a lot of other people he’s helped over the years.

“We know we can’t save everyone,” he said, “but the ones we do really appreciate it.”

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com