Ambulance may set call record

Ron Burtz

Part 6 of a series of articles examining the numerous economic and lifestyle impacts of the current in-migration to Custer County.
If you ask Custer Ambulance director Ruth Airheart to describe what things are like these days for her agency, you might get the same one-word answer we did: “Busy!” As with all of the public and private sector services we have profiled so far in this series, Custer Ambulance Service, Inc. is indeed busier than ever and on track to answer more emergency medical calls this year than ever before.
“I’ve never seen them paged out so much,” said Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley, noting calls for ambulances have been “non stop!”
For the past four years the annual number of calls has fluctuated between about 920 and 950 with 954 calls in 2017 the record. However, Airheart said so far this year the ambulance has gone out 501 times, compared to 376 at this time in 2020, putting the service on pace to break that record and possibly even exceed 1,000 calls for the year.
“With exception of January this year, we’ve exceeded last year’s call volumes every month,” said Airheart, noting summer is always the busiest time for the agency due mostly to tourism traffic which spikes during the Motorcycle Rally in August.
While saying it’s difficult to tell how much the increasing numbers are impacted by new people moving into the area versus seasonal tourism traffic, Airheart observed that the visitor season appears to be expanding. She agrees with Mechaley that out-of-staters started showing up earlier this year. She said the ambulance service started taking more calls for non-residents in April rather than in May or June as in previous years.
With the rising numbers of calls, one might think resources and personnel would be stretched to the limit. However, Airheart said so far that has not been the case, thanks, in part, to a large number of volunteers.
“It's a pretty solid group,” said Airheart. “We’re a combination service, so I’ve got six paid employees and roughly 15 volunteers. Our volunteer corps is pretty phenomenal.”
She said, because of other jobs and commitments, it varies how much time volunteers can commit, so sometimes staffing can get a little thin, but with the cooperation of other agencies like Custer County Search and Rescue and firefighters the job gets done.
Airheart said sometimes firefighters or others with emergency vehicle training will “jump in and drive” the ambulance when needed.
During special events like the Rally, volunteers will often “hang out at the station,” but most often they are tapped to help supplement the paid EMTs to make up an ambulance crew.
“They make their own schedule, so it’s dependent on their availability,” said Airheart.
The service maintains three ambulances and sometimes—whether it’s 3 p.m. or 3 a.m.—all three may be in use at once.
The eastern boundary for Custer Ambulance is roughly the east gate of Custer State Park, so the Hermosa area on the eastern plains has contracts for ambulance service with Rapid City. Those crews are supplemented by first responders from Battle Creek Volunteer Fire Department.
While noting that response times for some areas on the east side of the county can be as long as 20-30 minutes, Airheart said the same is true for areas on the west side like Argyle.  
Airheart said having enough trained EMTs is always a concern, but Custer Ambulance is taking steps to train new people through an annual fall EMT course.
Airheart said, since ambulance is not considered an essential service in South Dakota, and therefore not mandated by state law, some services across the state are struggling financially.
“Most ambulance services across the state are there because people decided they wanted that service in the community,” said Airheart. “We’re fortunate to have the tax district here which helps us maintain a paid staff.”
The taxation provides $190,000 for the ambulance service each year and Newcastle, Wyo., Hot Springs, Edgemont and Argyle first-responders also get a portion of the revenue for the parts of the county they cover. The rest of the operating revenue for the ambulance is generated through things like billing and patient transports. However, Airheart said a fair number of calls can’t be billed because no patient was transported.

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