When someone calls 911, there's no guarantee help will come for several northern Wisconsin towns

Paramedics Sean Mueller, center, and Frank Rohl, right, check one of the two ambulances at their station to ensure that their supplies are not expired Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Wild Rose, Wis. 

Bud Rubeck never saw him coming. 

It was late one night four years ago. Rubeck and his wife Julie had gone over to a neighbor's house in Clam Lake to try to smooth things over between a couple who had been fighting. Instead, the man blindsided him, punching Rubeck on the left side of his head. He fell and hit the ground hard. 

"When the ambulance service got here, had we not had critical care paramedics, I would have been dead," said Rubeck, now 68. 

Bud Rubeck is happy to be alive after he suffered a severe head injury in Oct. 2016 that left him on life support for several days. Photo courtesy of Chris Frasch

Great Divide Ambulance Service in Cable was there to respond when Rubeck's life hung in the balance. He had bleeding in the brain and couldn't breathe on his own. Paramedics took him to Cable, where they were met by a helicopter. They flew him to a hospital in Duluth, where he spent 10 days in an intensive care unit and several days on life support. He was in the hospital for about a month and had to learn to walk all over again.

Today, if someone in Clam Lake dials 911, there's no guarantee anyone will answer. 

"We're on our own," said Rubeck. 

Clam Lake is one of several communities in Ashland County that lost its ambulance service at the beginning of this year. In Wisconsin, towns are mandated to provide emergency services unless it's provided elsewhere, or they contract with another provider. But in rural communities, long drives, lack of volunteers and inadequate funding have left some places struggling to provide ambulance services to residents. 

Great Divide notified six towns last summer that it would end its five-year contracts with them at the end of last year. Three of the towns were able to obtain emergency services from local fire departments. But the towns of Gordon, Shanagolden and Marengo haven't yet been able to find another provider or get their own service up and running. That means those towns lack a regular emergency medical services (EMS) provider.

Great Divide still answers calls within the towns when they're able, according to Rob Puls, advanced life support coordinator for Great Divide. But he said Great Divide decided not to renew its contracts with the towns as the responder has struggled to cover shifts and to manage overtime costs and other mounting expenses. Treating people over longer distances also means the ambulance service provider goes through more medications and supplies. 

But Puls said the greatest challenge is finding people to work, even though Great Divide pays an annual wage that's over a third higher than the average household income in Ashland County.

"It's become increasingly difficult for us to find people to work over there. The workforce for EMS is not really good right now, and a lot of services are understaffed," said Puls. "Given the pandemic situation, it's kind of deterred people from going into this field to be a first responder."

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