NAUVOO, Ill. -- The Nauvoo Fire Protection District has equipped its ambulances with devices that have directly saved the lives of at least four residents over the last six months.
Paramedic Mark Kennedy has been working closely with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin on legislation that would help bring such equipment to other rural fire departments across the state. Kennedy, the Illinois advocate for the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, was invited by Durbin to attend the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee's Rural Summit last week.
"In communities in Illinois and across the country, rural EMS agencies are on the front lines responding to the opioid epidemic and treating the emergency needs of an aging population," Durbin said. "When Mark contacted me months ago, we talked about how we could solve the issues rural EMS agencies in Illinois face. We got to work and came up with the SIREN Act, a bill that will support the life-saving work these rural EMS agencies are tasked with on a daily basis."
Durbin sponsored the Supporting and Improving Rural EMS Needs (SIREN) Act on which he worked with Kennedy. The bipartisan bill reauthorizes a federal grant program to support training, recruitment, education and purchasing new equipment for rural EMS agencies. The bill passed the Senate on June 28 as an amendment to the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, also known as the Farm Bill. In Illinois, up to 500 rural EMS agencies would be able to apply for federal grant funding under the SIREN Act.
The biggest challenges posed against rural first responders, Kennedy said, are distance and securing highly trained people.
"In EMS, those challenges can be life and death," Kennedy said. "Senator Durbin immediately recognized the value of this act in a rural community."
Nauvoo Fire Protection District has only two paramedics on its 30-person staff.
"We need advanced EMTs. We can't send everybody to become a paramedic, but there are life-saving procedures they can provide for our patients at an advanced level," Kennedy said. "The state has it on its licensing, but it won't prepare its licenses."
Kennedy said four staff members have passed the program and hold the national certification to be considered advanced EMTs but cannot apply the advanced techniques until the state offers the licenses, a problem many rural departments face.
Nauvoo Fire Protection District covers a large area that reaches the borders of Niota and Camp Eastman and, through mutual aid agreements, often takes them elsewhere in the county.
"It's not that we can't get people to the hospital in 20 minutes. It has to be an appropriate hospital," Kennedy said. "Even if we take you to a rural hospital, in some cases, they can do nothing for you."
Kennedy used the example of a heart attack patient. He said that while he can supply the patient with medicine, the patient needs to be taken immediately to a hospital equipped with a cath lab. The nearest to Nauvoo is the Great River Medical Center in Burlington, Iowa, about 40 minutes away.
Nauvoo Fire Protection District's close ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have helped the department secure grants for cutting-edge equipment that helps alleviate some of the problems plaguing isolated, rural departments. The district recently purchased a Phillips cardiac monitor, which gives an EKG and tells exactly where the heart attack is happening. Using that information, Kennedy and other paramedics can select the optimal medication to use and better prepare the cath lab for the patient's arrival.
"We've turned our ambulances into an emergency department. Most everything we would do in an emergency room, we can do in the back of the ambulance," Kennedy said, noting that Nauvoo Fire Protection District ambulances are equipped with advanced tubing, life-saving medications, a defibrillator and an automatic chest compression device. "We're fortunate to have the resources and the management that we do, but, especially in America, not all agencies are created equal. It's important to get other agencies the basic equipment they need to start saving lives."