Joe Gill

For 32 years, Yankton resident Joe Gill has served the Yankton community as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).


“All those years ago, I was at the house when my grandpa suffered a stroke,” Gill said. “When the ambulance crew came, I knew a couple of the guys and helped to get him in the ambulance. When they were leaving, one of the crew said, ‘Hey, we’re having a class. Are you interested?”

Yes, Gill was interested, and it was a decision he never regretted. He felt the pull to be a volunteer to help family, friends and neighbors with medical emergencies. That was the easy part.

Basic requirements have changed over the years but today it includes about 140 hours classroom time, 40 hours in a hospital emergency room, on-call time with a certified ambulance crew and finally, written and practical testing to pass. And add to that the current requirement of 72 hours continuing education classes every year, it can be quite a load for just a volunteer.

Gill said state requirements are going through a change because rural areas are having a hard time keeping EMTs and their certification up to date so less hours may be required for future volunteers. He did note some of the part-time EMTs get a stipend when on call.

Gill said Yankton has a very nice program and offers a three to four-hour in-house training session every month at the Yankton EMS Center which is offered to rural EMTS as well. In addition to the monthly sessions, if an EMT attends the state EMT conference every year where training sessions are offered at different locations around the state from year to year, Gill said it’s fairly easy to fulfill the requirements to stay certified.

The monthly sessions usually cover the Yankton protocol and standard operating procedures as well as updating methods, reinforcing training and informing members of new medical procedures. The staff usually reviews some calls or difference scenarios are presented and the team discusses how to handle different situations. It includes classroom activities and hands-on training.

“It is important for all team members to be on the same page,” Gill said. “It also creates a bond with other team members.”

A new addition for EMT training in South Dakota is a rebuilt Recreational Vehicle (RV) which is set up as an ER and can be used for doctors and EMTs. It includes a manniquin with digital capabilities to recreate scenarios for one-to-one medical situations. The ‘body’ has actual heartbeats and pulses and there is an individual giving the staff a scenario and one behind the scenes setting up the heart rate, etc.

For example, Gill said it can recreate a heart attack and the EMT can give medical assistance while being monitored by the computer. His performance can be critiqued and if there needs to be changes in his method, the staff can offer advice.

“When we started, we worked on each other and then later there was the Annie doll and we were calling, ‘Annie, Annie, are you okay,’” Gill said with a laugh. “This new opportunity is like working with a real patient instead of pretending. Training has come a long way.”

Today there are about 26 paid and part-time Yankton residents who form the EMT squad and serve the Yankton area. During a month’s time, the staff mans a tight schedule day in and day out, including serving on call basically one weekend a month or two shifts. A two-man crew, one of which is always a paramedic, is scheduled for a 12-hour shift where they remain on site at the EMT Center, completing inventory and work at the Center. There is also a second two-man crew on standby, doing work at home or running errands in town carrying a pager, in case the first crew is on a transfer to a Sioux Falls, Sioux City or Omaha. If an EMT is on call, there are also requirements like having to stay within the city limits.

“You would be surprised how often the first and second crews are busy and then a page goes out for any available staff to go on a call,” Gill said. The Yankton EMS have four ambulances in the bay with a crew cab also available.

The EMS staff has a schedule where they indicate when they are available, so the final schedule can be made. The shifts run from 7 pm to 7 am and then 7 pm to 7 am. And the EMTs are required to sign up for at least two shifts a month.

Turnover does happen on the EMT staff as many volunteers are people interested in getting experience for medical school or a nursing career and then move on. On the flip side, it is increasingly harder to find new volunteers because of the training and responsibility that goes with the job, but the EMS is always accepting applications.

Gill is a familiar face around Yankton working fulltime in wholesale pop and beer sales but the EMT position usually doesn’t conflict with his work schedule but does interfere with his free time.

“It is quite a change from stocking shelves and I like the diversity and the challenge,” Gill said. “You never know what’s going to happen – for better or worse.”

And when the worst happens, what then?

In the early 1990s, Gill said EMS recognized the need for some sort of counseling for situations where children were injured, died or family members suffered a tragedy and they started Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) for EMTs and firefighters.

Gill said he has participated in several CISD sessions where at least one member of the team felt affected in some way. The team involved in the situation will gather – no one else is allowed. Normally one of the team members who is disturbed will ask for the debriefing but sometimes if there is an especially tragic situation, the EMS will automatically bring the team in to talk about it. There would also be a professional counselor present to talk through what happened. There’s no finger-pointing but individuals can get it out, talk about it and work through the incident, think about it and that helps he said.

Several Yankton EMTs are trained for these debriefing sessions and are asked to assist in CISD sessions at other places. Gill has been debriefed himself and also been involved in several debriefings. Typically, Gill said EMTs are more comfortable talking about these serious situations with other EMTs just as firefighters are more comfortable talking with other firefighters. It makes it easier to talk about what happened because other EMTs have been in these types of situations and seen the worst. A camaraderie is felt like what a band of war brothers experience when fighting.

Gill said everyone processes life differently and has different perspectives so discussing tragic situations with others involved in similar situations is comforting.

In Gill’s early years, he was on the dive team with Water Search and Rescue in the late 1990s.

“I enjoy diving but when you dive around here, you can’t see your hand in front of your face, but I did do the training and was involved in dragging for bodies,” Gill said. There is a Search and Rescue team that has taken over those situations in the last 10 years but there was a time when there wasn’t organized Search and Rescue and Gill said he was involved in some searches which were done with a small group of volunteers.

Essentially, Gill said in all these types of emergency situations, one finds himself working with basically the same group of people involved in service organizations. They participate in mock drills together and training sessions, planning for a variety of disaster situations, natural and man-made, where they are all needed at the same time.

“I like the teamwork which comes from working with others,” Gill said. “I guess every EMT’s dream is to deliver a baby and I have done that. It puts a more positive spin on the work than always the negative.”

The advancement in equipment is quite noteworthy Gill said. They now have a machine called Lucas, that does CPR compressions on patients now, blanket and IV warmers and cots that are powered electrically so they raise and lower easier, but there are still band-aids and stethoscopes, so some things stay the same.

But always, the care of the patient is foremost in the EMT’s mind. Getting the patient to the hospital is always the primary concern and usually the crew gets to the hospital in 10 or 15 minutes in town - unless there is a discussion where the wife wants the husband to go and the husband does not want to go Gill said with a laugh. Finally, the most time-consuming part of the job is the paperwork.

Sacrifices have to be made by not only the EMTs by giving up free time, but Gill thinks his wife Laura and two daughters give up a lot more.

“I can’t count the number of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter meals I have had to walk out on,” Gill said. “Or after church we go out to eat as a family but take two cars because I may have to leave on a call.”

In the break room, the younger guys think Gill as the oldest member of the crew and the longest-standing member of the crew may have forgotten more about being an EMT over the years than they will ever know.

“It’s been rewarding, and I have good feelings about my years as a EMT,” Gill said. “I see people in the best and worst situations and I’m grateful I can be there for my family and friends.”

And more important Gill wants to be there.