Letter from Langdon: The High (and Hidden) Price of Rural 911
When there's an accident in a rural area, many volunteers rush to the rescue, usually at their own expense. Should they be eligible for more than gratitude?
Near Langdon, Missouri, local emergency volunteers aid the victims of a road accident, calling in a helicopter to airlift one of the injured to a hospital in Omaha.
Photo: Richard Oswald
When lives hang by a thread in rural Northwest Missouri, a small but dedicated group of volunteers can make all the difference.
Here in the American countryside we attach great value to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We regard each human life as precious and priceless. Noble deeds are sometimes easier to talk about than to accomplish, though, when small communities must bear the expense of preserving life on shoestring budgets.
Not long ago, just outside of Langdon an accident occurred at exit 107, off Interstate 29. It was, unfortunately, like a lot of motor vehicle mishaps that occur along the 4-lane highway crossing Atchison County. (In fact, accidents are fairly common on most heavily traveled rural highways, especially Interstates.)
A group of motorcyclists was out for a weekend drive when they made the mistake of taking the wrong off-ramp. Realizing their error, they began to turn around, and two of them collided.
The collision set loose a series of events. First, someone dialed 911 on a cell phone. After obtaining a description of conditions at the scene, the 911 dispatcher notified the Atchison County Sheriff's department, the Atchison/Holt Ambulance District, and the Rock Port Fire Department.
Atchison County Sheriff’s Department notified Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop H headquarters.
Scott Jones, "first responder" and volunteer fireman in Rock Port, MO
Photo: W.C. Farmer
First on the scene was volunteer fireman Chad Ottmann, who was on his way home in his own vehicle. (Chad is my son-in-law.) After seeing the extent of the injuries, Chad asked 911 to call for a first responder. As it happened, first responder Scott Jones was only five minutes away, near the Rock Port exit at mile 110. Scott had just turned a stroke victim over to one of two available Atchison/Holt ambulance crews. Like Chad, Scott came immediately in his own vehicle. Before long, Atchison/Holt’s other ambulance, an Atchison County Sheriff’s deputy, and the Highway Patrol arrived. Rock Port Fire Department answered the call with six firemen and three trucks.
Based on the severity of injuries to one victim, 911 called LifeNet to airlift her to an Omaha hospital.
In the meantime, the volunteer fire fighters helped mark a safe-landing zone for the helicopter life flight, controlled traffic, cleaned up debris and spills, and loaded the injured.
Many times each year, selfless volunteers perform these types of jobs across broad areas of the country. Frequently, as in this incident, they use their own vehicles to respond to calls, an expense that both our volunteers and the rural fire protection district bear alone.
All told, about seven vehicles and twelve emergency personnel responded to this 911 call, an accident involving serious injuries to two people who reside 60 miles away, in Bellevue, Nebraska.
There is a moral to this story, because while insurance or the injured pay LifeNet thousands of dollars for transport to a hospital, our rural ambulance districts have to scrape for money, relying mostly on local taxes to purchase equipment, fund operating expenses, and maintain a trained staff of EMTs.
Atchison/Holt Ambulance District will recover little more than operating expenses in exchange for transporting the other victim.
But the volunteer fire department did a good deed for complete strangers who weren’t even members of our community…for free. For all the good they did that day, the Rock Port Fire Department and Scott Jones never received one red cent.
What’s more, they never asked for anything.
Highlighted here is the value of having viable communities dotting the landscape along major rural traffic-ways. True to country traditions, we always offer our guests the best we have.
Too many times our tiny settlements never get the credit they deserve for extending the boundaries of civilization beyond the borders of big cities. We are the human links, offering help, comfort, and safety both in and around our home towns. Most importantly for accident victims, small towns can be islands of hope.
Rock Port's Fire Department — All Volunteer
Photo: W.C. Farmer
Communities like ours struggle to maintain the same civilized existence that city cousins take for granted. We rely on the generosity of our own people, folks like Scott and his fellow firemen, to protect and preserve our loved ones, our community, and even our visitors.
It should be easier for rural services to recover costs of operation beyond the scope of fire protection, even if their sole objective is only to help…especially when non-resident visitors receive the benefit.
Recently, some small fire departments have begun billing insurance companies to recover costs for cleanup of fuel and oil spills from auto accidents. State law should go further. It should enable rural providers to be reimbursed for the modest costs of volunteer first responders, the people who preserve precious lives, yet receive little more than personal satisfaction and the gratitude of victims in return.