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Collaborating to Save Lives

Teamwork is critical when volunteer fire, rescue and ambulance departments need to respond to emergencies — especially in rural America.

Many communities have seen volunteerism dwindle over the last few decades. And with fewer volunteers, emergency responders don’t have the same capacity to raise the funds needed to purchase vital lifesaving equipment as in the past.

“I’ve been a firefighter with the Sharon Fire Department for 38 years,” explained Bruce Vander Veen, who also farms, raising registered Jerseys and growing 650 acres of corn and soybeans with his brother. “Through the years, it’s gotten harder and harder in rural communities to staff emergency response vehicles, especially ambulances. Many of us are looking to our neighboring communities to help pool resources.”

In 2019, Vander Veen spearheaded a group that brought together three Wisconsin fire departments from Darien, Walworth and Sharon. None of them were big enough to staff an ambulance full time on their own, so they joined together to create an intergovernmental agreement for a shared services medic program.

Spirit of Collaboration

Darien, Walworth and Sharon each maintain individual firefighting teams for their communities, but through their intergovernmental agreement, they now have an ambulance that’s staffed around the clock. The rig floats between the three towns throughout the day, responding to calls — and when additional assistance is needed, local volunteers are called in for backup. This relieves the load on volunteers, giving them more time for their jobs, like farming.

“Farming works well with volunteer firefighting because, although we’re busy, we’re usually available around the clock,” Vander Veen said. “We also have the experience of working on our feet and solving problems as they arise.”

Compeer Financial’s Fund for Rural America® introduced a grant in 2022 to help local rescue departments fill in gaps when it comes to specialized equipment for responding to emergencies. Through the Emergency Response Equipment Collaboration Grant Program, local agencies can collaborate together to seek funding for specialized equipment — things like hydraulic extrication tools, chest compression systems, oxygen tank refill equipment and more. Many times, these things are difficult for local departments to purchase separately. But working together and sharing the equipment with neighboring towns have even stronger benefits for rural communities.

Lifesaving Equipment

Londa Lauber, Vander Veen’s financial officer at Compeer Financial, immediately thought of her client when she heard about the new grant. Vander Veen applied, and the departments received funding for a battery-operated extrication tool.

“I just thought, ‘Boy, this is perfect for us,’” Vander Veen said. “Between our communities, we have five state and U.S. highways, and unfortunately we see a lot of car accidents. Our ambulance, which is usually on the scene before our volunteers, didn’t have the set of tools needed for extrication and often had to wait for volunteers to set up cumbersome Jaws of Life equipment.”

Now, when every second is critical, the emergency response team saves precious time because they’re able to respond with greater speed and agility. In the first three months with the new equipment, rescuers have already used it twice.

Fifteen collaborative rescue groups received equipment grants in 2022 across Compeer’s territory in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“We know rural departments often share resources and important pieces of life-saving equipment,” said Karen Schieler, senior corporate giving specialist at Compeer. “The spirit of collaboration is strong for emergency departments in rural America, and we hope these grants can help impact even more lives. First responders give so much when people are in need, and these tools and resources will help in critical situations.”

The next application window for this grant program is Aug. 1-31, 2023. Learn more at

This article was originally printed in the Summer 2023 edition of Compeer Financial's Cultivate magazine.  

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