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By Dan Hardenbrook

There’s a group of heroes hard at work in Luce County. They work long hours and cover hundreds of miles. In an emergency situation, they are often the first to arrive and the last leave. Their job is to be there for us, helping at a moment’s notice. The men and women of Luce County EMS have impacted countless lives serving the area as a premium life saving service.

Now they need our help. Luce County Ambulance Service is asking the same communities they care for to support them through a millage request that will be on the ballot in November.

The service is led by Director Joe Smithson, and overseen by a board who makes the key operational decisions. Challenges for the department continue to mount, and additional funding will be necessary to resolve them.

Currently, Luce County EMS receives partial funding through two separate millages that have been previously passed in 2018 and 2020 totaling approximately 1.5 mills. While that money has kept the organization operating, it hasn’t been enough to keep up with rising costs, deteriorating equipment, and to keep salaries competitive.

Luce EMS recently held an open house to mingle with the community and share goals and needs.

“One thing that people did get to see was how old some of our equipment is getting,” Smithson said. While the ambulances are still operational, the miles and wear and tear are piling up, potentially putting people at risk.

“There is an incredible amount of miles that we have to put on these things. Some of our rigs have over or close to 300,000 miles on them and we really need to look at getting those replaced with stuff that is more reliable,” he said.

Smithson said that the crew has been forced to all but eliminate one ambulance in the fleet already due to wear and tear, using it only as a last resort when absolutely needed. “It’s become so old that anytime we roll it out of the garage, it seems to break down. It’s just worn out,” he said. “Unfortunately we have had things break down in transit to other facilities. Thankfully not with any passengers on board, but we want to avoid that.”

Smithson knows that the communities in Luce County have been hit hard, from bond proposals to revenue loss during the COVID pandemic. He feels it’s more important than ever to create outreach opportunities in the area.

“I think it starts with trust,” he said. “I think the relationship and rapport that we need to build with the people is vital to the longevity and the future for our organization.”

That means getting to know people when they aren’t in an emergency situation, and getting involved in community events. Along with the recent open house, the EMS crew participated in local 4th of July parades and continue to attend local events to show their support. “We are really trying to turn the corner in our organization and become a bigger part of the community,” Smithson said.

Though he says his medics are of the highest quality medics in the profession, Smithson has struggled to keep a full staff, as the crews can find higher paying jobs in nearby counties. Luce EMS offers substantially lower than some surrounding areas, making it hard to recruit new members and keep their experienced team members in place. Part of the increase and change in their operating millage would be dedicated to raising compensation for paramedics.

The new millage proposal in November would be a mix of an increase and replacement of the current millage in place – see related article on this page.

Smithson hopes that, with the increased millages, the department can make necessary upgrades in the short term and then reduce its millage request to lower levels in the future.

And if the millage doesn’t pass?

“It’s a scary prospect. I don’t really have all of the answers for that,” Smithson said. “I will say that it would mean we are running some pretty old rigs and that means more money being put into maintenance instead of putting that money to use in other important areas. If we don’t do something, specifically with the ambulances right now, we will be in a little bit of trouble, but I’m really looking forward to the continued support from our community.”