By Alice Crow
Because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other barriers for volunteers, Ingram is saying goodbye to its volunteer ambulance services and welcoming NorthWest EMS as its sole provider.
On July 1, NorthWest EMS became the officially recognized ambulance service provider for Ingram. Before this, Ingram’s volunteer ambulance had been the primary provider for 49 years, and for the last 20 years, NorthWest EMS had assisted with services in the borough under a collaborative mutual aid agreement.
Ingram’s former EMS Director of Operations Karen Dixon first became an EMT in 1981 and was there during the early years of Ingram EMS.
“Our original cache of emergency medical technicians were trained at Ohio Valley Hospital. Those first newly minted ambulance volunteers worked on a shoestring budget to provide basic life support care, including CPR and splinting,” Dixon recalled.
Ingram EMS began in 1973 as a grassroots initiative after a young father passed away in the back of a police car due to an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting.
“Those dedicated providers had to play a dual role, providing emergency care to community members while constantly raising money to support the fledgling emergency service. There are no words to describe this initial group's commitment to service,” Dixon explained.
Several community members volunteered to go on and become the borough's first EMS providers.
At the time, medical response in the Pittsburgh area was out of date and often considered a police matter, Dixon recalled. Other medical transport was handled by private ambulances and operated by funeral homes, this being the case in Ingram.
In the 1980’s, the Board of Directors for Ingram EMS, led by former Ingram Police Chief and Mayor Robert Clark, sent volunteers to paramedic classes at CCAC with financial assistance from Ohio Valley General Hospital.
“This upgraded our care delivery to include advanced life support, allowing our members to provide a higher level of care, including using a cardiac monitor to diagnose heart attacks, start intravenous lines and administer medications. Around that time, the landscape of EMS changed,” Dixon said.
In an effort to standardize services, Pennsylvania began to require a certificate and inspection process for all EMS agencies in 1985.
“While the efforts had noble intentions, often these unfunded mandates led to the demise of small, volunteer EMS agencies. The onus was placed on EMS providers to maintain technical and complex certifications on their own while balancing full-time jobs and family life,” Dixon said.
“Ingram EMS survived decades beyond most volunteer EMS agencies as a direct result of the fierce commitment and dedication of EMS providers, and the sacrifices each of them made for nearly half of a century.”
As director, Dixon believes many factors played a role in the switch from Ingram’s volunteers to NorthWest.
“Unfortunately, with reimbursement on a steep decline, an economy that discourages volunteerism and the hardship for non-career EMS providers to balance their daily life while trying to maintain technical certifications, the writing appeared on the wall,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic also created barriers for volunteers.
“The COVID-19 pandemic sealed our fate,” Dixon explained. “Nearly all of our volunteer providers, including highly trained City of Pittsburgh Paramedics, were forbidden from working or volunteering at a second healthcare entity to protect their respective workforces.”
With limited in-person classes and a decrease in healthcare volunteers, the combination of these factors reduced the Ingram EMS staff until they had to discontinue services in the spring of 2020.
To ensure no gaps in service, the board of directors and Dixon crafted an agreement with long-time partner NorthWest EMS to continue service. Allowing NorthWest to use two of their ambulances, Ingram EMS hoped to return to servicing the community someday. They renewed their license in May 2021 but the Health Department only renewed it for one year instead of the usual three years.
“We hoped that we could begin responding to calls in the fall of 2021 to prove our viability to the commonwealth and to our community. Unfortunately, the new strain of Delta Variant and Omicron mutations stymied those effort,” Dixon said.
Despite big plans before the pandemic for a new station and other new features, being unable to respond to 911 calls with a small volunteer pool and paying bills out of savings, the board decided to reach out to NorthWest’s parent company Heritage Valley-Kennedy to negotiate a merger.
Dixon believes residents will feel no disruption from the full transition to NorthWest.
She believes the legacy, patience and community-first values will continue with Ingram Borough council providing oversight.
Dixon will be a part of this oversight as a member of council and as chairperson of the highways, health and sanitation committee.
As a send-off, Dixon thanked everyone who aided Ingram EMS over the years, especially the volunteers.
She also made special note of thanking borough council, former Ingram resident Norm Mitry, Heritage Valley CEO; and friend and business colleague David Gallagher, executive director at Northwest EMS.
“I have been a resident since 1967 and personally served the community since 1983. Mentoring and training many providers who continue to serve in Allegheny County has been a lifelong pleasure.”