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Volunteer rescue workers cite statewide shortage at Sept. 11 remembrance

Formal volunteerism in Wisconsin fell by 13 percent in four years, following national trends

U.S. flags decorate a fence
Flags decorate a fence on Tuesday, July 4, 2017, in Boston. Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

Wisconsinites gathered Monday to remember the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the Wisconsin 9/11 Memorial and Education Center in Kewaskum. The third annual event focused on the importance of volunteer rescue workers.

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, 3,000 of the firefighters who responded to Ground Zero and the Pentagon were volunteers. Martin Nystrom was the keynote speaker at Monday’s event. The navy veteran was the chief of the volunteer first aid squad in Maplewood, New Jersey, one of the 375 volunteer fire departments who responded to the emergency.

He said he remembers fire trucks and ambulances lined up for three miles.

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“The first day was chaotic at best. It was unorganized,” Nystrom said.

For four consecutive days, he worked on rescue and recovering victims where the Twin Towers fell. He remembers meeting Wisconsinites who were there volunteering with the Salvation Army.

“Neighbors helping neighbors,” he said.

At least 18 people with ties to Wisconsin died because of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

At Monday’s event, speakers focused on the increasing struggle of Wisconsin’s community fire departments to attract people willing to be volunteer first responders, a problem that is growing amid an overall decline in volunteerism.

According to a study by Americorps and the U.S. Census Bureau, formal volunteerism in Wisconsin decreased by 13 percent in four years. All but two states in the country also saw decreases.

A 2019 study by University of Southern California says declining religious participation and changes in homeownership rates, unemployment rates, and poverty levels are contributing to the declining volunteerism.

Nystrom also cited cultural shifts and worker fatigue.

“Volunteer once or twice a week for six or eight hours on the back of an ambulance – it’s a tough thing to do today with the way things are in the world,” Nystrom said.

Catherine Pampel is a full-time emergency medical technician with Lifestar Emergency Medical Services. On her days off, she volunteers as an EMT with the village of Kewaskum. She spoke at the event about the declining numbers of Wisconsin residents who volunteer.

“I get off a 24-hour shift and, no, I don’t want to be on call. But you know what, it’s the sacrifices that we make,” Pampel said.

She noticed a drop in other volunteer EMTs like herself, which discouraged her.

“It’s for the fellow man. It is for that feeling inside, that deep inside feeling in your heart, being able to help somebody in need in their worst nightmare,” Pampel said.

According to the Wisconsin EMS Association, it takes approximately 180 hours of coursework and training to become an EMT, more than 300 hours to qualify as a paramedic. Nystrom described the requirements as “overkill.”

“Wisconsin, I implore you to go to your legislatures, go to your Senate, go to whoever you have to go and get that number knocked down to at least 150,” Nystrom said.

Both Pampel and Nystrom want to see young people volunteer in emergency services.

The Kewaskum High School band volunteered their time on Monday to play the national anthem at the 9/11 remembrance event.

Senior and flute player Kaitlyn Blank, said she was inspired by hearing Pampel speak. Blank volunteers in her church choir and wants to be a volunteer EMT once she turns 18-years-old.

“It’s not the constant need to be paid,” Blank said. “It’s because you actually want to help people.”

Pampel said there are trends that give her hope. Last week, five people signed up to become volunteers with the Kewaskum Fire Department.

“I believe it all comes in waves. So we may be down in the bottom of the wave right now, and we’re just going to shoot right back up,” Pampel said.

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