Minnesota ambulance service could lose license over staffing shortage

One of Minnesota’s oldest ambulance services is at risk of shuttering because of a volunteer staffing shortage. The fate of Altura Ambulance could have serious implications across southeastern Minnesota where several rural ambulance companies are staring at similar predicaments.

When the emergency call for help goes out in Altura, ambulance director Jessica Romine answers, even in the middle of an interview.

Romine is one of Altura Ambulance’s 11 volunteer emergency medical technicians. They serve parts of Winona County including the cities of Altura and Rollingstone, which is where Monday’s call took them.

"We are severely understaffed," Romine said. "We have a handful of EMTs taking the brunt of the calls. And it's causing burnout."

The state requires an ambulance company to be in service at least 12 hours out of a 24-hour period. But even with some EMTs volunteering to be on-call for up to 250 hours in a month, Altura has had two violations. After a third, the state Emergency Medical Services Regulatory Board could take away its basic life service license.

At a meeting last week, a state specialist said they’re hoping for better options.

"We are trying to be reasonable regulators and assist them and provide that support," she said during the meeting at Altura's City Hall.

Altura Ambulance's top option would be to fill in the staffing gaps, and not necessarily with EMTs.

They have one emergency medical responder --EMR -- already and they’d like to add more to ease the burden and spread out EMT coverage.

Option number two would be to downgrade to a first responder service — like they have in Rollingstone.

They wouldn’t be allowed to transport patients, so they’d need a neighboring ambulance to get anyone to a hospital.

The third option is no ambulance service in Altura. But nobody seems to want that because the consequences could be dire.

Closing Altura Ambulance Service would mean neighbors in Lewiston or Winona would have to absorb their patients.

But those ambulance companies are also spread thin.

Romine forecasts trouble with either of the last two options because of delayed treatment.

"In some cases, it would be 30 or 40 minutes before you see an ambulance, which in some cases stroke, heart attack," Romine said. "That's a life or death situation."

Adding five to ten EMRs would solve the staffing problem, in Romine’s estimation.

They’re asking for help on their sign, and since going public with their shortage last week, a few people have asked how to get involved.

So Romine is hopeful the state’s seventh-ever ambulance service won’t be the latest to fold.