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Volunteers are needed to keep the doors open at rural ambulance services and fire departments. Are you up for the call? (Annette Tait/Special to Agweek)

9-1-1, where ARE you?

It chills us to the bone every time we hear it. And the numbers aren't getting any better. Rural ambulance services and fire departments are in trouble.

If you live rural and this doesn't scare you, it should.

Rural emergency services often travel greater distances than their city counterparts to get where they need to go, sometimes on roads that aren't paved. Or there may not even be roads — a recent call to our local ambulance service required traveling across fields and then trekking down into a coulee to reach the patient.

This takes time — a critical commodity when a family member, friend or neighbor has suffered an injury or other medical emergency, or when fire is raging in a building or across the prairie. It's just common sense — the sooner help arrives, the better the odds of the best possible outcome.

Most rural emergency services rely on volunteers. Budgets cover equipment and training, but don't stretch far enough to pay salaries for full-time staffing. And volunteers are getting harder and harder to come by, even for organizations and activities with less intense requirements.

We get it — it's easier to find someone to staff concession stands, clean up the park, or contribute to bake sales. These things ask for people to provide skills they already have to help with scheduled projects.

Finding emergency services volunteers is a bit trickier. Skills have to be learned, and licensing or certification has to be earned and maintained. Still do-able, but not the toughest part.

Some volunteers are drawn to emergency services and thrive on it (even when the calls are few and far between). Those who don't need to look beyond the reasons "why I can't" and focus on the reasons "Why I can do this."

One of us has been an emergency medical services volunteer for nearly 10 years, first as an emergency responder (EMR) and now as an EMT. And not because she thrives on it. She does it because there's a void that needs to be filled.

And if we don't fill those voids, our rural emergency services will disappear. There are places in our areas where current response times are 30 minutes or more — through no fault of the agencies responding. Volunteers drop everything when their pagers go off, leaving work, home, or whatever they were in the middle of, to report to the station.

It's the distance — and sometimes road or weather conditions — to farmsteads or other rural locations that eat up time. Minutes feel like hours, both on the rig and for those waiting for the rig to arrive.

Losing our local volunteer agencies could double those response times or more in some areas. When every minute counts, those extra minutes could prove fatal in cases that otherwise wouldn't be. It just makes sense to do everything we can to keep our volunteer fire departments' and ambulance services' doors open.

And that takes people just like you. What would it take for you to become part of the solution? Talk to volunteers at your local fire department or ambulance service — tell them what your fears are. We bet theirs were similar when they got started.

Ask them what positions are needed and what training is required. You may be surprised to find there are support positions that don't require medical or firefighting training. And that you may be more capable of the "tough stuff" than you thought.

Sure, there are times it can be heart-rending. But the flip side is when all goes right, and you know you were a part of making it that way.

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