Mid-County Rescue Squad captain Joe Schlatter tells the Northumberland County Democratic Committee about the services and funding of Northumberland’s fire and rescue squads.
“This ain’t cheap,” said Schlatter. “A basic EMT course will take you a thousand dollars, six months, and an ALS (Advanced Life Support EMT) is over three grand and over a year, depending on where you take it. It costs a quarter of a million dollars to put an ambulance on the road. We’re buying a brand new ambulance, and for $175,000 we’re going to get a bright shiny new truck with a big old box on the back of it, nothing in it, not even Band-Aids in it. We have to buy everything that goes in that ambulance.”
Keeping emergency vehicles on the road and crews outfitted can be very pricey and requires careful budgeting, Schlatter explained. Schlatter estimated that LIFEPAKs, for example, which function as defibrillators and vital sign monitors, cost $28,000.
“Fire departments are even more expensive,” Schlatter said. “A tanker will run you three hundred grand.
“It costs $4,000 to outfit one firefighter, and if they don’t tear it or burn it up, that suit will last about 10 years,” he continued. “Our budgets include money set aside to replace everything, because you have to figure, ten years from now, I’m going to have to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a new ambulance.”
Schlatter said Northumberland’s fire and rescue services rely completely on volunteers.
“There are no paid personnel in the fire department or in the rescue squads,” Schlatter said. “Now, that’s important, because that means there’s nobody at our buildings. If you go to the rescue squad, there’s not a crew sitting there waiting for a call. All 911 calls go to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office then alerts us, and then the firefighters and the rescue squad members have to go to the building, crank up the firetrucks, crank up the ambulance, get a crew on.”
An all-volunteer program can mean longer response times, Schlatter explained. He compared Northumberland’s response time, within 23 minutes in 75% of calls, to professional city departments which can respond to calls within three to five minutes.
“If you figure it’s gonna take us 23 minutes to get to you, about ten minutes on the scene to figure out what’s going on and get you loaded in the ambulance, and then it’s another ride to the hospital,” Schlatter said. “From the time you call 911 to the time you roll in the emergency room door is the biggest part of an hour. So it is important that you understand basic first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.”
Emergency response in a rural area can have its own set of challenges as well, Schlatter said.
“We don’t have fire hydrants in this county, so they have to carry their water with them,” Schlatter said. “And if they take every single fire truck in the county, bucket, canteen, bottled water they have, they can haul about 15,000 gallons. To put out a fire that is completely involved in a doublewide trailer, you can run up close to 10,000 gallons. So 15,000 gallons worth of the water they carry can be expended very quickly.”
However, Schlatter said Northumberland’s volunteers are no less skilled than the pros.
“Volunteer does not mean amateur,” he said. “We have to meet the state certification requirements. I have passed the same test as the EMTs up in Prince William County who are making $50,000 a year.”
Schlatter explained that funding is a constant concern for the squads.
“Where does the money come from?” he asked. “We do not bill for our service. If you’re over in Spotsylvania County and you call the ambulance, and it’s a basic life support EMT, they’re going to bill you $450. If it’s a paramedic, that’s $650. We don’t bill. That is the policy of our board of supervisors.”
Northumberland’s emergency services rely on a combination of state and local funding, donations, bequests, and grants, he said.
“We get at Mid-County about $60,000 a year from Northumberland County,” Schlatter said. “They give it to us in quarterly installments. All that does is put gas in the ambulance and new tires every now and then. That $28,000 LIFEPAK is paid for by chicken dinners, and pancake breakfasts, and bake sales. That quarter of a million dollar ambulance, that’s how it’s being paid for.”
Northumberland’s emergency services regularly solicit donations to help keep their trucks on the road, according to Schlatter.
“You will receive two appeals a year depending on where you live,” he said. “I would ask you to please look at those and be as generous as you can.”
Schlatter also talked about the many things emergency services crews can do in the community. For example, some communities and Homeowners’ Associations have dry hydrants, which allow tankers to draw water from nearby bodies of water.
“If you live in a subdivision, you might want to talk to your fire department and ask them where that dry hydrant is, and check it down there to make sure it’s not covered up with weeds,” Schlatter said.
Emergency responders also do a great deal to educate the community, Schlatter said.
“We at Mid-County once a month teach a class, and it is a national certification class, in basic first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and use of the automatic electronic defibrillator,” Schlatter said.
Firefighters also educate and help out in the community, Schlatter said.
“If you will buy the smoke detectors, the fire department will come out and install them and show you how to fix them and how to change the batteries,” Schlatter said. “Ditto for carbon monoxide detectors. They’ll come by and test yours, make sure they’re working. They will even come do fire safety checks on your buildings.”
“If you have a Homeowners’ Association and you are at a loss for what to do at your next meeting, invite your local fire department and they can come out and talk about fire safety,” he continued.
There are also several things residents can do to make themselves safer in the event of an emergency, Schlatter explained.
“You need to be prepared,” he said. “You need to know basic first aid and CPR, and we teach that once a month.”
Schlatter recommended that families also keep a piece of paper with personal and medical information for each family member so that EMTs and doctors have that information readily available. He also recommended that medications be kept in one place, so that EMTs can easily bag them to take to the hospital.
He also urged elderly people who live alone to take steps to ensure their safety if something happens to them. Schlatter highlighted the Northumberland sheriff office’s Safe and Secure program. People signed up for the program call the sheriff’s office twice a day, Schlatter explained. If they do not call, the sheriff’s office calls them. If they don’t answer that call, the sheriff’s office notifies their emergency contact and dispatches a deputy.
Schlatter also recommended alert pendants.
“These alert pendants, this Life Alert that you see on TV, these things really work,” he said. “We respond to about one of these a month.”
However, he said, residents need to be wary of a phone scam in which people receive unsolicited calls offering them alert pendants.