Some of the emergency personnel at Winneshiek Medical Center include, from left: Mike Ashbacher, Ben Pfile, Josh Moore, Ambulance Manager Steve Vanden Brink and Kenny Monteith. (Submitted photo)
Some of the emergency personnel at Winneshiek Medical Center include, from left: Mike Ashbacher, Ben Pfile, Josh Moore, Ambulance Manager Steve Vanden Brink and Kenny Monteith. (Submitted photo)
In a medical emergency, a volunteer may mean the difference between life and death.
In honor of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) week, Steve Vanden Brink, president of the Winneshiek County EMS Association, wants to increase awareness of what emergency responders do for the community.
“In Winneshiek County, we have nearly 60 EMS providers, who are predominantly volunteer,” said Vanden Brink.
“These are your neighbors who leave work in the middle of the day or get out of bed in the middle of the night to go and help.”
Vanden Brink said while there are approximately 25 part-time or full-time staff at Winneshiek Medical Center who are trained to help, often the initial person on the scene is a volunteer -- a person trained as either an Emergency Medical Responder or a Technician.
“These are the people who evaluate the scene and gauge the severity of the situation. They provide additional resources prior to the arrival of the ambulance,” said Vanden Brink. 

Vanden Brink added it is often a volunteer who decides, based on the circumstances, whether the local hospital will be able to meet the patient’s needs or whether they will need to be taken somewhere else. 

“That all comes with experience,” said Vanden Brink. 


Stepping up

He added because of the work involved, the longevity of a responder is only about 10 years. 

He said the county is always looking for new volunteers to step up and become certified. 

“Our median age is 35-40. One thing we’re not seeing is young people getting into it. Sixty may seem like a large number of people, but it’s small,” he said. 

Partners who work together to provide emergency care within the county include Castalia Fire Department, Cresco Ambulance, Calmar Rescue, Frankville Ambulance, Waucoma First Responders, Postville Ambulance, Fort Atkinson Fire Department, Mabel Ambulance, Burr Oak First Responders, Calmar Police Department, Luther Security, Iowa State Patrol, Decorah Fire Department, Ossian Ambulance, South Winn First Responders, Decorah First Responders, Winneshiek County Sheriff and Decorah Police Department. 

“We get a lot of help from local law enforcement. They’re always there,” he said. 


Training required

Vanden Brink explained there are two levels of certification: trained emergency (medical services) responder (EMS) and emergency medical technician (EMT). 

Training for EMS volunteers requires a 50-hour class, which costs $600. EMT training takes 150 hours and costs $1,200. The fees are reimbursable upon completion.  

He said this certification allows the person to function with the transporting ambulance service, and could eventually lead to employment. 

“You have to go through background checks … It’s not just anybody who can get the certification. You need to have a clean record and a valid driver’s license,” he said. 

Vanden Brink added there are opportunities for job shadowing, so people can get an idea about whether or not emergency response would be for them. In addition, he said local companies or factories sometimes pay an employee to become certified at least in CPR and basic first aid. 

“Becoming a responder is an opportunity to serve your employer, your neighbors, your town and township,” said Vanden Brink. 



Judy Ott of Fort Atkinson said the 30 years she has served as an emergency responder have flown by. 

In 1990, she was awarded the Winneshiek County EMS first responder of the year award and the state first responder of the year award, recognitions she says she is proud of. 

“I am one of two charter members of the South Winneshiek Area First Responder group, who are still active in our group,” said Ott. 

Ott said while she originally took the training to help her family in an emergency, she and some others taking the class decided to become volunteers in their respective communities and to offer emergency medical help prior to the arrival of the ambulance. 


“We made up our ‘jump kits’ (emergency kits) in a central locations for each of the three communities of Calmar, Fort Atkinson and Spillville. With the amazing support of our friends, families and neighbors, the first responder groups were formed in our local towns,” said Ott. 

She added many volunteers put in countless hours to organize the Winneshiek County EMS Association, with the help of the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors, law enforcement, fire departments and Winneshiek Hospital paramedics. 

“Over the years, Winneshiek County EMS has provided thousands of hours of education and training needed to renew certifications – both time and money – with funds received through the Iowa Department of Public Health EMS Bureau,” she said.  

“We are fortunate to have available to the volunteers access to the education hours through NICC in Calmar and hospitals and service groups in Northeast Iowa,” said Ott, adding she hopes more young people will step forward to get involved. 

“So many changes have taken place, and I feel so privileged to be a part of this .. it is so much a part of my life. My involvement has benefited me and my family in many ways that couldn’t be put into words … it is such a rewarding experience,” she concluded. 

For more information on how to become an emergency responder, contact Vanden Brink at WMC, 563-382-4221.