EMS volunteers always on call for others

Law-enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel are in the profession of helping others.

Not many can say they have a job that provides service to others continuously, but that?s what these people do.

Whether preventing crime, rescuing people from a burning building, or caring for someone?s medical needs, these professions require commitment and dedication.

Of the three careers, EMS is a relatively young helping profession, said JoAnn Knak, former Marion County EMS director and paramedic in Hillsboro.

Until 1965, she said, the majority of care prior to a patient being hospitalized was provided by the local funeral home. The patient was driven to the hospital in a hearse with no one riding with the injured person except a family member.

?What the U.S. Department of Transportation found out was that not all fatal traffic accidents needed to be fatal,? Knak said.

As a result, the first emergency medical technician training programs were developed.

?Kansas was the forerunner in coming out with a set of protocols,? Knak said about standardized procedures.

This was not only a big plus for Kansans receiving pre-hospital care, she said, but being the first to come up with a statewide basic level program and partially evolving at the EMT-paramedic level put the state on the leading edge.

?Kansas EMTs could do what Colorado and Oklahoma paramedics could do,? she said.

For awhile, Kansas was living on its laurels, though, and didn?t continue to grow as fast as EMT counterparts in other states.

?It?s getting better now,? she said.


In her almost 40 years working in EMS, Knak said she has seen a lot of changes.

?EMS (technology) in the early 1970s until now was like going from a covered wagon to a jet airplane,? she said.

Knak said when she took her first EMS class it was taught by Vietnam War medics at the Univer?sity of Kansas Medical Center.

Her interest in becoming an EMT started with a first aid class she took while working at Reynolds Aluminum Co. that was located at Hillsboro for several years.

?Charlie Penner was the (county) health and sanitation officer and we needed a first aid/CPR provider in the shop,? Knak said.

After being exposed to that class, she wanted to learn more.

Probably the hardest part of working in EMS, she said, is when a child dies.

?Those are tough to deal with.?

In her 22 years as the Marion County EMS director, and her years of experience as an EMT and paramedic, Knak said she has helped people in airplane crashes, vehicle crashes, falls, heart attacks and more.

?Sometimes you can take care of someone today (in an emergency situation) and they won?t know who you are tomorrow (walking down the street),? she said.

That?s not why she does the job, though.

?As an instructor,? she said, ?I have had people go through the EMT program and become doctors and nurses, and I have had something to do with that.?

Another reward for Knak is seeing children taken care of after an emergency situation, and how they have went on to become healthy adults.

?We help in someone?s recovery through expediency (at the scene).?

In emergency medicine, Knak referred to the ?golden hour,? the period of time?from a few minutes to several hours following a traumatic injury?when prompt medical treatment has the highest likelihood to prevent death.

Volunteers are not as easy to recruit as they once were, she said.

?It?s getting harder and harder to find students,? she said.

Class options

Going through the training class can take time, but Knak and others who have completed it say it?s worthwhile.

The first-responder class takes 100-plus hours to complete. When finished, the volunteer is qualified to drive the ambulance.

EMT classes, she said, require about 200-plus hours. When completed, volunteers have the ability to take care of a patient in the field.

The EMT-I class trains volunteers to give intravenous therapy, which enables them to give solid substances directly into a vein.

The paramedic class requires four full semesters. Knak took her training at Hutchinson Community College.

As a paramedic, Knak has received the most advanced level of training. A response team may include a combination of first responders and other levels of EMTs.

Retired, but filling in

Gene Winkler of Marion retired in August 2009 after serving his community almost 40 years. Even today, he said he still fills in when needed.

Winkler, like Knak, was among the first to take the course after the new program was introduced.

Others in the original class in 1971, Winkler said, were Dave Thomas, Jerry Harp and Bill Holmes.

?I was in the second class that started in August 1972, when the county was making a push for volunteers,? he said.

Winkler said he took the class with Harvey Sanders and Lucille Britton of Marion.

The class was 40 hours, he said, but when they finished, officials told them they needed an additional class taught in Newton.

?I can remember so many who went through the class, got out and have now passed away,? he said.

Winkler also has experienced many changes in the field.

?The ambulance was a type of van that we couldn?t even stand up in, and all we had was a bottle of oxygen and a few bandages,? he said.

Winkler said he never went on to complete other EMT levels.

?Most of the time,? he said, ?we were five to six minutes from the hospital.?

When someone was pinned in, there was always someone with the training who could administer IVs.

Winkler said the most difficult part about being an EMT was the same as many others have said: seeing young people injured or worse.

?I think the most rewarding part was being able to help people,? he said. ?Every time we would go to someone?s house, I would try to make the person comfortable.?

Winkler hoped his lighthearted mannerisms put the patient more at ease.

?I loved it,? he said, ?and there was never the same thing (on calls).?

One of the worst incidents in his long career occured a few years ago during road construction on U.S. Highway 50. The emergencies involved semi trucks and passenger vehicles.

The first night, Winkler said, they were called to a semi and pickup accident. The next evening it was a semi truck hitting the back of a van carrying a family of six people.

In both calls, there were casualties.

?I saw so many accidents where a person was thrown from their vehicle (and died),? he said. ?I know had they stayed in the vehicle (wearing a seat belt), they would have lived.?

Winkler agreed with other EMTs that the number volunteers is down from previous years, but this year 16 people signed up, which is better than last year when only six individuals took the class.

During his years as an EMT, Winkler said he was on call from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday because he owned his business. Today, many young people aren?t able to step away from their job or can?t afford to.

?The class also requires a lot of time, going two nights a week from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for six months,? he said.

While Winkler said he believes the future of EMS will continue to grow and be a viable part of the community, he is concerned about recruiting volunteers.

Times have changed from the early years of EMS, he said.

He said in five years Marion County could need to switch to paid paramedics instead of the current volunteer system.

Regardless of the obstacles facing EMS in the future, Winkler said he has no regrets about his decision to become an EMT and would encourage others to consider it, too.


For the person interested in joining EMS, Knak and other long-time members offered their advice and experience.

Knak said the first issue is commitment, which must be a family decision.

?The family has to agree because if the family is opposed to it, it won?t work,? she said. ?A lot of husbands and wives are EMS members.?

Another long-time EMT, Dick Carr of Hillsboro, agreed with Knak.

?My family is on-call with me,? he said. ?My wife is as much a part of it as I am, helping me find my shoes and glasses at 2 a.m. (for a call).?

Knak would advise students in EMT classes to take care of patients like they would want to be taken care of.

?I can?t ever have imagined having done anything else,? Knak said about her work as an EMT and paramedic.

Carr, who became involved in 1974-75, said he still volunteers one night a week or fills in when needed.

One of the most difficult aspects of being an EMT, he said, is knowing so many of the people who need his help.

Although he wasn?t sure how he first got into EMS work, Carr did say he believed it was a way of giving back to his community.

He was also involved in construction, so knowing how to handle emergencies would be a good thing.

As for changes, Carr said he thinks there were a lot more car accidents when he first started compared to today. Even though vehicles were built stronger in the 1960s and ?70s, he said, he saw a lot more motorists thrown through windshields.

Part of the reason for more of those types of mishaps was because seat belts were nonexistent or were rarely used.

Recertification is also important in keeping up with the latest techniques and training, he said.

?Every month we meet to talk about different aspects of EMS,? Carr said, which is vital in continuing to provide the best treatment possible.

His gratitude not only extended to fellow EMS members, but also to the city of Hillsboro.

?We receive a lot of support from the city,? he said.

Carr may not remember the exact reason why he became an EMT, but he said he is glad he did it.

?It is very rewarding,? he said.

Susan Wadkins of Hillsboro is relatively new to the service with about nine years in, but said she believes Marion County has an excellent support system.

Being one of the first to respond at the scene of an accident or other trauma injuries, Wadkins said it?s important for EMS responders to have a system in place to help them through critical incidents.

Marion County, she said, has a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing to help handle those times.

?Certified trained individuals respond to help the whole crew within days after difficult situations,? she said.

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