META — In Meta and the surrounding area, the only way a patient can receive quick medical transport is from COMM-Unity Ambulance. However, that will change as of June 1, when the base …
META — In Meta and the surrounding area, the only way a patient can receive quick medical transport is from COMM-Unity Ambulance. However, that will change as of June 1, when the base will close, and transports will cease.
COMM-Unity Ambulance Board President DJ Schroeder said informing dues-paying members and the public is the first phase of a difficult decision.
“This is just the beginning,” said Schroeder, a 25-year veteran of the ambulance service. “I don’t know how many phases there will be because we have to close everything out and figure out what to do with the equipment.”
Two ambulances, the building, equipment, and supplies - including bandages, splints, and oxygen - will have to be addressed.
Headquartered in Meta, with a base near Diamond Pet Foods, COMM-Unity Ambulance was formed in 1987 to fill the void. The name was developed because the ambulance served communities in Cole, Osage, Maries, and Miller counties.
The service extends north and east of Meta, up Hwy. 133 into the Westphalia area and along Rt. P in to the Koeltztown area. The service also covers the area south of Meta in to the northwest section of Maries County, west towards St. Elizabeth into Miller County, and the southeast section of Cole County, in the St. Thomas area.
COMM-Unity Ambulance has operated as a Basic Life Service (BLS) agency, meaning only EMTs have been responding and transporting patients. Advanced Life Support (ALS) services require a paramedic.
Schroeder pointed to a change in the times and the pressure associated with a volunteer organization as reasons for the closure.
“We have people willing to help out and do things, but to step up and be a licensed emergency medical technician, that’s quite a liability and a lot of responsibility,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to maintain personnel at the training level required to run transports.”
A couple of long-time EMTs have announced retirement as well.
Schroeder noted that by summer, there won’t be any daytime EMTs available to operate the ambulance. “Everyone works another job out of the area,” he explained. “After much discussion, it was clear that we can’t cover it sufficiently with only a couple of EMTs.”
When it became evident the ambulance service would have to make a change, Schroeder began discussions with Maries Osage Ambulance District (MOAD) and Osage Ambulance District (OAD). There was no good option for either agency to step in and provide full coverage.
“When COMM-Unity first notified us last year that this was coming, we discussed what help we could offer,” said OAD Administrator Josh Krull. “I have enjoyed working with the members of COMM-Unity Ambulance Service very much over the years. The hard-working group in Meta is one of — if not the last — completely volunteer ambulance services in Missouri.”
Krull noted that paid and career ambulance services find it challenging to staff ambulances. “I am amazed and thankful to each member that has volunteered their time to keep the ambulance service going for this long,” he added.
OAD plans to offer expanded coverage into the area of COMM-Unity Ambulance that would align with the Westphalia Fire Protection Boundaries. “This would take us just a little further south down Highway 133 and should not stretch resources too thin with current operations,” said Krull. “Not speaking for other ambulance services, but it is our belief that another ambulance service is going to offer expanded services into Meta and the areas that we were not proposing so that everyone would have coverage. If that proves not to be the case, we will re-evaluate. I do not want to leave anyone without dedicated ambulance coverage.”
COMM-Unity Ambulance has averaged about 80 EMS calls per year since 2017, said Schroeder, who, along with his wife, Joanne, have served as EMTs. They will continue to be part of the process as medical first responders in cooperation with Meta Fire Protection District.
Board members from the non-profit Meta Fire & Rescue, Inc. and COMM-Unity Ambulance agreed to work together at a meeting last week.
“I’m glad Meta Fire was receptive to adding medical first responders,” said Schroeder.
“In talks with neighboring ambulance services, we all agreed that although it’s sad and unfortunate to see this closure, we are thankful many members plan to move into first responder roles with the fire department,” Krull added. “I think the ambulance services surrounding Meta will pull together and help provide the necessary coverage. First responders and fire department response in rural areas such as Meta can absolutely make the difference between life and death. We will 100 percent help support that continued effort through training offerings and other outreach opportunities like we have in the past.”
Meta Fire Chief Kenny Helton called this a unique situation because several firefighters also volunteer with the ambulance service.
“We have provided first responder services, but this will be new because we will have medical first responders,” said Helton.
Meta Fire has five people certified as first responders, and Helton estimates seven or eight more will work the medical side with the closure of the ambulance service.
“We didn’t respond to medical calls before, but we’re all cross-trained, so I don’t expect there to be any issues,” said Helton, explaining that many were on calls anyway as first responders for the fire department. “We’ll have to track our medical calls, but that won’t be a problem.”
Closing the ambulance base comes down to numbers. “It’s just a sad situation,” said Helton. “People don’t have time to volunteer anymore.”
911/EMA Director agreed, but it will not affect the 911 center other than telecommunicators will dispatch a different agency.
Helton said that Meta Fire will respond immediately to medical calls and provide patient care until an ambulance arrives. “We have mutual aid with other departments, but everything will depend on how thin their resources are in terms of response time,” he added.
Schroeder said he feels bad about having to close the ambulance service.
“I feel like I’ve let the community down, but reality kicks you down sometimes, and you have to make tough decisions,” he said. “I wish there was a better answer, but you can’t do it all. I have a lot of good memories of unique and interesting calls over the years. There were times I laughed and times I cried. You do this to help people in your community.”
Though COMM-Unity Ambulance will not respond after May 31, Schroeder will continue to be involved as part of the medical first responders with the fire department.
Helton added that while Meta Fire will gain seven or eight medical first responders from COMM-Unity Ambulance, there is still a need for volunteers.
He will offer a first responder class at 6 p.m. on Feb. 6, but registration must be completed by Jan. 23. For more information or to enroll, contact Helton.
COMM-Unity Ambulance has been funded by paid memberships and billing for transports. Schroeder noted that he plans to transfer funds to Meta Fire & Rescue since that is a non-profit organization.
He hopes to sell the building, ambulances, and equipment to other agencies.
Because there is a legal process to disband a non-profit organization, everything will go through the Secretary of State’s Office. Schroeder and the board are seeking legal counsel to complete the process.
Note: An upcoming story will outline other agencies’ plans to help cover COMM-Unity Ambulance’s coverage area.