Johnson County Illinois Ambulance Service

Robby Trigg (left) and Mark Cooper check supplies and equipment inside one of the three emergency vehicles of the Johnson County Ambulance Service. It is a daily task.

VIENNA, Ill. — The Johnson County Ambulance Service may not be as busy as departments in Cook County and other metropolitan areas, but they also must deal with some unique challenges.

The department serves about 12,500 residents scattered across 350 square miles deep in southern Illinois. That means narrow roads, older equipment and long distances. The 18 employees make it all work, however.

The department includes one full-time crew 24 hours a day, and secondary crews that work 12-hour shifts.

“At any given day, we have four people here,” said Dorothy Bacon, who has been with the department 18 years, the past two as director. “We have three vehicles.”

The rescue crews are always ready to go, but their arrival times may be longer than those in more populated areas.

“It takes such a long time to get to people,” Bacon said.

The rural landscape does pose challenges.

“We get into instances where the roads are not being cleared,” said Robby Trigg, who has worked here for about 11 years. “One problem is overhanging trees. We’re constantly taking antennae off trucks and swiping mirrors. A lot of times — especially in the winter — you just have to walk into someone’s house because you can’t even think of getting close with the ambulance.”

The nearest hospital is in Marion, which is 20 to 30 minutes away, depending on where the emergency call originates. The closest trauma center is even farther. Those who sustain major injuries are often evacuated by helicopter to Cape Girardeau, Mo., or Evansville, Ind.

Trigg has dealt with several farm accidents, but has found farmers are less likely than others to call for help.

“Most farm guys around here are too tough to call 911,” he said. “They’ll either be at the house or halfway to the hospital before they realize it’s bad enough to call us. So we rarely deal with it.”

As with most departments, the large majority of calls are medical emergencies. But crews have been called to the scenes of farm accidents as well. Trigg once responded to a call in which a farmer was run over by his tractor pulling a brush hog. He has been on several calls involving tractor drivers falling off their vehicles.

The department was involved as backup in one grain bin rescue, assisting the Lake of Egypt Fire Department. A farmer was waist-deep in grain and couldn’t get out. There was a happy ending, as the rescue crew pulled him out using ropes. He had been stuck for an hour and a half.

“He was pretty shook up,” Trigg said.

The crews have had their share of major accidents. They assisted a couple of years ago at the scene of the crash of a private plane, in which the pilot and three passengers were killed on New Year’s Eve 2016.

Most air accidents do not result in such loss, Trigg said.

“Most of the time, incidents with crop-dusting planes and helicopters are controlled crashes,” he said. “We had a helicopter crash two weeks ago. It wasn’t even in the news. The pilot hit a guy wire. If they’re going to hit something, most of the time it’s going to be a power line. They know it’s going to happen, and they put it down pretty easy.”

A recent train derailment required assistance from the department, but they had to wait nearly two hours for a railroad crew to arrive and cut the engineer from the engine. The train had crashed into a tree and pinned the driver.

One of the most welcome equipment additions has been an AutoPulse resuscitation machine, which helps perform CPR.

“That’s incredibly handy for us here,” Trigg said. “Prior to getting that, you’re a one-man show back there (in the ambulance). If you’re 30 minutes from the hospital and you’ve done CPR and the bag mask, plus pushing meds, you’re just exhausted.”

The department has also ordered a power lift system for the trucks. The hydraulic lifter aids in getting patients in and out of ambulances.

“The population as a whole is getting a lot bigger,” Trigg said. “The cot already weighs 100 pounds. You put a heavy person on it, and that’s a lot for two people to lift.”

Bacon added, “It’s going to help them avoid back injuries.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.