by Marci Narum  | Photography: Rachel Neva Photo

When people in a small town rally, it’s usually around a cause that will improve the quality of life on some level for an individual, a family, or the entire community. Residents in the town of Garrison, North Dakota are pulling together for an even higher purpose: to save more lives.

The town is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. It draws hunters, anglers, campers, boaters—tourists in general—year-round. Accidents and medical emergencies are bound to happen. The Garrison-Max Ambulance District has to be prepared for anything.

“We do have a quality service,” says Sandra Nelson, ambulance district board president and certified EMT. “I feel very proud to be on the board and also part of the medical staff, because if this community didn’t have an ambulance, you’d have to rely on Minot or Underwood or even Bismarck for care. And when it’s something so urgent that you need that immediate response, we would probably have a higher mortality rate.”

“You’d have to wait for an ambulance for a long time,” ambulance district co-manager Amanda Melby adds. “It could be a life or death situation for sure. If someone is having a heart attack or stroke, time is muscle, so you need definitive care sooner rather than later. Every second counts.”

That’s why, when Amanda and her husband, Logan, and their three girls moved from Bismarck to Garrison two years ago, she started the process of making it a Cardiac Ready Community (CRC). In 2016, the North Dakota Division of EMS and Trauma partnered with the American Heart Association to offer the CRC program through the North Dakota Cardiac System of Care. The designation means people living in a community are prepared to respond and assist if an individual has a cardiac event. The goal is to improve the chance for survival in those situations.

“Six other communities in the state are Cardiac Ready Communities,” Amanda shares. “We have our letter of intent into the state and there are certain criteria you have to meet to become a CRC.”

Among those criteria: teaming up with the local hospital, fire, and police; garnering support from business owners, training community members in hands-only CPR, and providing education and prevention programs such as blood pressure screenings. Plus, the community is required to have Automated External Defibrillators (AED) where the public can access them in an emergency.

“The public access AED is a huge thing our community wants to see happen; to have them in every church and the grocery store. We’ve had people have heart attacks in these public places where access to an AED would have been potentially lifesaving,” Amanda shares.

The Garrison-Max ambulance crew has 28 people on staff, plus volunteers from the fire department. Amanda says of those, four are paramedics and three are full-time EMTs, bringing more than 100 years of experience in EMS. The district is also recognized as a Pediatric Prepared Ambulance.

“It means we are the best possibly prepared for a pediatric patient,” says Amanda, buckling her daughter Kendall into an ambulance seat. “We have the training and the equipment, and we hold public events geared toward kids. I will be trained as a car seat technician, so I can do car seat checks in the community.”

The experience and opportunities for training have made the Garrison-Max Ambulance District a learning hub. Amanda says it is known as a regional training center.

“We are one of the only training centers in our region. Ninety percent of our employees are all instructors, so we can hold and teach any course anybody needs, whether that’s law enforcement, the fire department, EMS personnel, daycare providers, or teachers.”

The ambulance crew trained and certified 181 Garrison High School students this year and taught basic first aid to teachers and coaches. Camp counselors and state park employees are next. That should just about cover the community.

“It’s our nature to help people,” says Amanda. “If I’ve got family and friends living here and something happens to one of them, especially with how rural the community is, I want to make sure they have the best chance possible to survive. Garrison is a nice little community and everyone is so tight-knit and looks out for each other.”

It’s a community that rallies. And when a community rallies, its heart grows stronger.