WORLAND, Wyo. — For three years, Luke Sypherd has run the small volunteer ambulance crew that services Washakie County, Wyo., caring for the county’s 7,800 residents and, when necessary, transporting them 162 miles north to the nearest major trauma center, in Billings, Mont.
In May, though, the volunteer Washakie County Ambulance Service will be no more.
“It’s just steadily going downhill,” Mr. Sypherd said. The work is hard, demanding and almost entirely volunteer-based, and the meager revenue from bringing patients in small cities like Worland to medical centers was steeply eroded during much of 2020 when all but the sickest coronavirus patients avoided hospitals.
Washakie County’s conundrum is reflective of a troubling trend in Wyoming and states like it: The ambulance crews that service much of rural America have run out of money and volunteers, a crisis exacerbated by the demands of the pandemic and a neglected, patchwork 911 system. The problem transcends geography: In rural, upstate New York, crews are struggling to pay bills. In Wisconsin, older volunteers are retiring, and no one is taking their place.
The situation is particularly acute in Wyoming, where nearly half of the population lives in territory so empty it is still considered the frontier. At least 10 localities in the state are in danger of losing ambulance service, some imminently, according to an analysis reviewed by The New York Times.
helped keep ambulances afloat disappeared, either because people were moving around less, or were fearful of going to a hospital and exposing themselves to the coronavirus.
notoriously averse to tax increases, each missed transport in 2020 was critically lost revenue.
Unlike fire and police departments, many states do not consider ambulances to be “essential services.” Only a handful of states require local governments to provide them.
For most of the country, access to an ambulance is a lottery. Some municipalities provide them as a public service, funded by taxpayers, while some contract with for-profit ambulance companies. Most rely on the willingness of volunteer companies, like Mr. Sypherd’s in Washakie County, which are buoyed by a patchwork system of public and private funding streams.
But across the country, E.M.S. professionals say fewer and fewer people are willing to volunteer for the job, a phenomenon accelerated by the stress of the pandemic. Many municipalities expect volunteers to take time away from work, something few people can now afford to do.
“The donated labor is not there anymore,” Mr. Gienapp said.
Same job, new patch
On May 1, Mr. Sypherd will put on a new uniform.