WINONA Wis. (WLAX/WEUX) – First news at nine is proud to present County by County Winona, where we look at the people and places that makes Winona a special part of our community. We’ll be sharing county by county stories every night this week. Tonight, rural ambulance services can provide quicker responses when residents of smaller communities are in need.

Kelly Dahl has worked at Gundersen Health System’s Winona campus since it opened. Dahl’s official title is Regional Business Office Coordinator, but her role is more extensive than that.

“Payroll, schedules for multiple departments on campus, I teach CPR for the people needing to re-cert here in Winona. I respond to the CRT, so anytime there’s an incident on campus, I’ll respond and work alongside the team,” said Dahl.

And that’s just Dahl’s full-time job…not to mention the extra work she does on the side.

“I’ve been an EMT, I’m approaching my 11th year with that,” said Dahl.

Dahl is one of 30 people who make up the staff of the Lewiston Volunteer Ambulance Service. She says it’s not uncommon to rush home after a day of work at Gundersen so she can be on-call for Lewiston.

“I think just because I’m so passionate about it, it doesn’t seem like a chore. It doesn’t burden me, I love it. I can’t see myself not doing it anytime soon,” said Dahl.

Lewiston ambulance director Matt Essig says the same is true for all of the volunteers.

“They are just amazing, amazing people. You talk about what they do for their full-time careers, we have people in manufacturing, we have mechanics, we have farmers, we have an engineer, we have people in HR, we have nurses that are on our ambulance,” said Essig.

Essig has been the ambulance director since 2010, making sure there are volunteers available whenever a crisis arises.

“By statute, we’re required to provide service 24/7. By law, you must have at least two people in your truck, but we usually schedule three. Even with a staff of 30, we still struggle sometimes to have that coverage,” said Essig.

Those struggles are partially due to the wide range which Lewiston covers.

“Our PSA is 125 square miles; we cover seven rural townships. It’s about 4,500 we actually provide service for, and then we have two obviously major roads, highway 14 and 90, that run right through our PSA. Because Lewiston’s in the center of Winona County, we’re also the mutual aid for every ambulance that surrounds us. We often will find ourselves in a different city, whether that be to our west in Saint Charles, or to our east in Winona,” said Essig.

Another struggle…recruiting and retaining staff. Essig says there’s constant turnover in rural health care caused by burnout, job changes, or people moving out of the area. To fill in the gaps, Essig is turning to a younger generation.

“Some of the things specifically we’ve looked at is our local high school, so, for the last ten years, we’ve been teaching what’s called the Emergency Medical Responder course. It’s kind of the lowest level at the pre-hospital setting, and we do that once a year. We’ve had good luck getting into the high school and telling them who we are, what we do, and if they stay around in the area after high school, we might see them volunteering,” said Essig.

Students at Winona state and St. Mary’s university have also helped as volunteers. Dahl hopes the comradery of the ambulance staff will encourage young people to stick around.

“We’re a strong membership, we always have been. When we get together, we’re family, so it makes it a desire to want to be a member,” said Dahl.

Lewiston is always looking for new members, so anyone with interest is encouraged to contact Essig. The Lewiston Volunteer Ambulance Service was established in 1974 and responds to more than 200 calls per year across its service area. 

Tune in this Sunday at 9:35 pm after First News at Nine to watch our full half-hour special, County by County-Winona. We will introduce you to the people, places, and things, that make Winona County unique.