Where in the World of EMS is A.J.? (In Okoboji Iowa)


I’ve spent the past few days in beautiful, rural, northern Iowa, speaking at the University of Okoboji 29th Annual EMS Conference in Okoboji/Spirit Lake, Iowa. To get there, I had to fly to Sioux Falls, South Dakota and then drive east one and a half hours to the Okoboji region, near the northern Iowa border with Minnesota. It was well worth it!


I’ve been to the area/conference before and was honored and excited to return. (They only invite me back when I can again pronounce Okobogi (Oka-Bo-Gee) correctly — Ha Ha!)

It’s a beautiful part of America that most people don’t know about.

It’s basically like the Michigan Great Lakes area, but in Iowa. It’s a very popular resort/vacation area, staffed primarily by EMT level ambulance and fire services, with limited ALS and served by two aeromedical helicopter services.

It’s a wonderful area for an EMS educator to present at because the EMT attendees all almost all volunteers, really want to be there, are in their seats, ready to go at 7:30 AM and totally attentive until 5:30 PM Saturday and Sunday. They are all genuine, hospitable, people, hungry to learn and appreciate of the speakers that come to present to them.

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And, speaking of eating, you would not believe the meals they serve for breakfast and lunch each day. (See photos) They are prepared by area EMS agencies and are meals fit for a King (and his court/subjects!).

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They made perhaps 300 delicious, juicy, steaks for us for Saturday’s lunch (and sold the leftovers to attendees — $5.00 for three big steaks) – proceeds going back to the Conference/Association. (My therapy dog – “Bernie” – would have loved them!!)


I presented multiple lectures along with the following wonderful speakers:

Rick Sywassink D-ABMDI:

Rick is an Autopsy Technician/Medicolegal Death Investigator with the North Dakota Office of the State Forensic Examiner. Rick has over 35 years in law enforcement and medicolegal death investigations and crime scene management training. Rick started his career with the Cedar Rapids Police Department in 1974 and also served as a Special Agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation prior to being a Chief Deputy for two (2) separate Sheriff’s Offices. He has also served in the National Disaster Medical Service (NDMS) as a member of Iowa 1-DMAT and DMORT 7 during Hurricane Katrina – as a Security Specialist and Field Support Officer. His military experience includes time as a Master at Arms for the United States Navy Reserve and a Sergeant with the 186th Military Police Company, Iowa National Guard. Rick is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security and is also a graduate of the St Louis Medicolegal Death Investigator course and has attained the Diplomat designation with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. He has taught at the college level as an Adjunct Professor for 15 years for four (4) different institutions. He is currently assisting with developing a Mass Fatality Plan for the State of North Dakota and also develops courses for the National Mass Fatalities Institute.

Rick has signed on to write articles for JEMS and the EMS INSIDER on how EMS personnel/agencies should manage crime scene evidence (The “Dos and Don’ts), as well as tips for crews and managers on medico-legal death investigations and crime scene management.

Jim Williams, MPA, EMT-P:

A New Mexico resident who has served as Fire Chief for the Lovington Fire Department, who recently began a new endeavor as City Manager for the City of Lovington, New Mexico. Jim also serves as the Lea County, New Mexico Representative of the Eastern New Mexico EMS Corporation (EMS region III) Board of Directors as its Vice President and as a member of the New Mexico Statewide EMS advisory committee.

Gary Myers:

Gary serves as Director of Mission Lifeline, and an EMS Consultant for the Midwest Affiliate of the American Heart Association. Gary works on the Mission Lifeline heart attack initiatives in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa. Before coming to the AHA, Gary worked on a multi-state telemedicine project with over 60 rural hospitals. Prior to that, he was the State Trauma Program Manager for the South Dakota Department of Health. While with the Department of Health Gary was part of the development team for Simulation in Motion – South Dakota (SIM-SD) and the EMS Leadership Initiative. In addition, while with the Department of Health, Gary served on the Heart Disease & Stroke Advisory Board, the Mission: Lifeline Taskforce and the Mission: Lifeline EMS Workgroup. His background also includes more than 15 years in both volunteer and professional fire and EMS, including seven years as the EMS Director for the City of Vermillion, SD Fire and EMS Department. Currently, Gary is also the chair of the City of Sioux Falls, SD Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA) board.


At the end of each day, the speakers, as well as a few local EMS experts/instructors, present 10-minute rapid-fire talks, with Dickinson County EMS Association Board President, Steve Hopkins, seated up front with a full-size Stop Sign that he holds up at the 5- and 10-minute mark of our brief day-end sessions. (He’s tough!  Ha Ha!)


I got a chance to:

  • Visit with staff of the MERCY Air Care (Sioux City Iowa) and North Memorial Hospital (Iowa) medical helicopters;


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  • See a beautiful new Lakes Regional Healthcare – LifeLine Ambulance (with a fluid shock system that they said really improves the vehicle ride;

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  • Go up in the Arnold’s Park/Okoboji’s 100’ Rosenbauer/Metz Tower Ladder. Not only was it the smoothest elevated platform I was ever on, but their wide ladder belt made me feel thin again! Firefighter Bruce Lee (his real name – not the actor) took me straight up 100 feet where I could see all the lakes and shoot a few “selfies”. (See photos) I love how the boom/ladder can go right down flat to the ground level – Great for victim rescue/evacuation operations.



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They had quality regional vendors at the conference, including Alpha Medical Equipment (www.alphamedicalequipment.net) whose owner, Jeff Grasto, brought a beautiful modular ambulance that he restored and painted pink in honor of his Mom Eileen, who died of cancer two years ago, (See photos);


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Fancy Stitching (www.fancystitchingllc.com), a great company with a great owner, that has a ton of EMS shirts of all sizes and types (serious and tastefully sarcastic);




Also present were: The region’s CISM group; and Mission Lifeline which is assisting rural services in upgrading to (BLS) 12-lead EKG units and mechanical CPR devices for BLS/ALS/Hospital (Millions of dollars in rural initiative grants – primarily to BLS agencies in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa).



History of the Beautiful Okoboji / Spirit Lake Region

In 1857, little was known about the Iowa Great Lakes Region. For its few inhabitants, it was a bitter, cold winter. Exposed to the harsh elements, a hungry and angry band of Sioux Indians seeking food and shelter roamed the Little Sioux River basin which eventually led to the confrontation and massacre or kidnapping of 33 pioneer settlers.


When word spread of the now known “Spirit Lake Massacre,” a small detachment of soldiers from Fort Dodge, Iowa, made their way to the lakes region through the bitter cold to identify and bury the dead of the massacre, and dispose of any Indians encountered.

In the early days, the entire lakes region was known wholly as “Spirit Lake.” Of greatest value to early pioneer settlers migrating to the lakes region, other than the land itself, was the fishing. Since there were no laws regulating fishing at the time, massive amounts of fish were taken from all of the lakes in the area.

According to R.A. Smith in “A History of Dickinson County Iowa,” an important task among the early settlers was the naming of the different lakes, or rather familiarizing themselves with the names the French settlers and native Indians already had given the lakes. Spirit Lake was well known in the area as “Minne Waukon” by the Indians. This name was said to mean “the Spirit Water.” The early French settlers called the lake “Lac d’Esprit” which literally translated into Spirit Lake.

The Dacotah Indians called East Okoboji Lake “Okoboozhy” and West Okoboji was assigned the name “Minnetonka,” signifying big water. But, since there was already a large popular lake in central Minnesota called Lake Minnetonka, the Iowa Minnetonka name was dropped and renamed West Okoboji.

There’s some confusion over the origin of the word Okoboji, but most believe the origin of the word means “and there are others” from the Dacotah Indian translation.

The area of land between the West and East Okoboji’s, which would eventually become the City of Okoboji, has been home to pioneers making camp and establishing roots in the area from the time of the earliest settlers.

Modern settlements began to show up when the Okoboji bridge was built in 1860 connecting the channel that connected West Okoboji to East Okoboji.

Around the end of the 19th century homesteaders and immigrants first started building homes along the lakeshores. By this time, Spirit Lake had already become an established community and the county seat of Dickinson County.

The City of Okoboji officially incorporated as a city in 1922 with a recorded population of 176 residents by 1930, the first year Okoboji was recorded in an official census. Inserted here is a collection of antique postcards of the Lakes Region.

Sources: Segments of this brief history were summarized and paraphrased from A History of Dickinson County Iowa, R.A. Smith, 1902 and History of the Iowa Great Lakes Region, John W. Parson, 1988.


Conference Committee Chair: Chris Yungbluth

Dickinson County EMS Association Board:

  • President – Steve Hopkins
  • Vice President – Art Cummings
  • Secretary – Karen Pratt
  • Treasurer – Richard Cother
  • At Large Members – Julie Thiesen, Pat Daly & Russell Bell

Terril Fire Department: Food Prep

Lake Park Ambulance: Refreshments

Spirit Lake Fire & First Responders: Helicopter LZ


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