May 25, 2007
Compassion Is a Trait Shared by County’s EMS Providers
Training for EMS – Terry O’Shaughnessy, an emergency medical technician – critical care student, and Dana Oliver, paramedic and training coordinator for Southern Oswego County Volunteer Ambulance (SOVAC), work together in SOVAC’s training facility in Central Square. In addition to providing emergency medical services, the corps provides CPR and first aid training for the public.
EMSAC Leaders – James Jones, right, a part-time provider for Oswego County Ambulance Corps and president of Oswego County Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee (EMSAC), discusses EMSAC’s work with Norm Wallis, vice-president of EMSAC and director of operations for Southern Oswego County Ambulance Service.
Compassion -- That’s the common characteristic of all emergency medical services (EMS) providers, whether paid or volunteer.
National Emergency Medical Services Week, May 20 through 26, recognizes providers across the nation for the pre-hospital care they provide, saving lives and holding hands.
“Compassionate” best describes emergency medical technicians, says Norm Wallis, Director of Operations for Southern Oswego County Ambulance Service (SOVAC) in Central Square.
“A lot of EMS is holding hands and drying tears,” agrees James Jones, a part-time EMT with Oswego County Ambulance Service in Fulton. Jones also serves as volunteer president of Oswego County Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee (EMSAC). “Ambulances are capable of handling anything from minor emergencies to major trauma.”
“People have many reasons for becoming an EMT,” Wallis notes. “Some are giving back to their community in their time of need. A lot of people going into the health-care field use EMS as a stepping stone. Some also come for the camaraderie – for a lot of them, it’s a social event. You have your regular Thursday night crew, your regular Wednesday night crew.”
“Ed Lighthall has volunteered for us for 23 years, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. every Wednesday night,” said Sandie Hargrave, a volunteer for 33 years with Donald McFee Ambulance Service in Mexico. “He hasn’t changed his shift. That’s a phenomenal feat. He’s made the commitment to be here every Wednesday night.”
Zach Menter, who’s in the process of taking over ownership of Oswego County Ambulance and Hearse Service, Inc. from his father, Jim, said the paid providers are dedicated to the profession as well. “A couple have been with us for over 30 years,” he said. “Eddie Kasparek has worked for all three generations,” including Menter’s grandfather Alfred, who bought the Fulton business from Frank Spaulding in 1952.
Of the six ambulance services providing pre-hospital care to the public (another serves the population at SUNY Oswego and another serves an industry), four started as all-volunteer services. As training requirements became stricter – to ensure the best pre-hospital care possible – and volunteers for all community organizations became scarcer, the volunteer services have had to put on paid Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) for at least the daytime shifts. All of the corps staff at least one Advanced Life Support (ALS) rig at all times.
The six include Oswego County Ambulance and Hearse Service, Inc. (Menter’s) in Fulton, Oswego City Fire Department, Southern Oswego County Ambulance Service, Inc. (SOVAC) in Central Square, Donald McFee Ambulance in Mexico, North Shore Ambulance Service in Cleveland, and Northern Oswego County Ambulance Service (NOCA) in Pulaski.
Northern Oswego County Ambulance (NOCA) in Pulaski started out as an all-volunteer service in 1974, says Deputy Director of Operations Mike Solazzo. “In late 1998 we started paying staff, and since 2000, we’ve seen a severe decrease in volunteers.” To make a living, he notes, paid providers often work at two or three corps. “It’s a poor man’s profession,” he explains. “You’re there because you want to be there.”
“It really is a lot of personal gratification, especially when you know you’ve had a positive personal impact,” says Dave Engle, a firefighter and paramedic at Oswego City Fire Department, which provides ambulance service to the city and surrounding towns. “It’s not the kind of job where you’re doing it for the paycheck.”
People are EMTs, observes Engle, because of personal fulfillment or because they enjoy the technical aspects of the job.
“A lot of them really have a passion for it – self satisfaction,” says Menter. “A decent number of our employees are also volunteer firemen … Not all of EMS is saving lives. It’s knowing you made a difference and helped somebody else.”
Sandie Hargrave and her husband Jim, who’s been volunteer Director of Operations at McFee Ambulance for 14 years and an EMT since 1980, said that providers are there to make people feel better. “Ninety-five percent of what we do is hold their hand,” Sandie Hargrave says.
“They’re scared and just want somebody to tell them it’s going be okay,” explains Jim Hargrave.
With a shift in recent years on training and a loss of volunteers throughout local communities, the ambulance corps are seeing more and more paid providers. Still, Oswego County has a significant number of volunteers and paid providers who have been EMTs for a long time.
“The average turnover rate for EMS in this state is five years,” says Engle. “There are a lot of people in this county who have been doing it for 20 or 30-plus years.” He pointed to Mark Murray, who recently retired as EMS Coordinator for the Oswego Fire Department.
“EMTs used to be a dime a dozen,” notes Wallis, who started as an EMT 26 years ago. “Now it’s a lot harder to find them, even the good ones. But when we think about volunteers, we’re sacrificing something,” he notes. “It’s harder for the person who volunteers to keep up with the technology when he volunteers a couple times a week.”
“We don’t have any line between volunteer and paid providers in the field,” says Sandie Hargrave. “They’ve blended very well together. The biggest question we’ve had is recruitment and retention,” she continued. “We’ve spent time on retention. We provide a decent facility, partially pay for training, make it easy for them to stay. We try to keep expenses related to participation down.”
“We have a good paid staff, and I’m very thankful for that,” adds Jim Hargrave. “We have good volunteers, too.”
Jones notes that although there may be fewer people in the profession, they are more highly-trained.
“To become a Basic EMT takes somewhere around 150 hours a year,” said Solazzo. “EMT-Intermediate, EMT- Critical Care, and Parademic take far more hours. And to continue, every three years we must be recertified.”
Hargrave and Kathy LaVigne of North Shore Ambulance Service in Cleveland are the two last volunteer directors of operations.
Even with the challenges the corps face, pre-hospital care in the county is the best it can be. SOVAC has not been out of service once in three or four years, Wallis says. NOCA puts on a third crew during the day to meet the higher number of calls during the summer months when there’s an influx of visitors to the area.
The corps also work together through mutual aid.
“We share people, and we share ambulances,” says Jones. “The rule of thumb is, the patient is the most important thing.”
“We’re as good as any of the counties around us,” he added. “We can put an ambulance with trained people on the road anywhere in Oswego County within five minutes of a call to 911, in spite of the huge challenges we face.”
But although their record is an excellent one, EMS continues to have significant growing needs, especially from a people standpoint.
“The demands of the EMS field are difficult on people mentally and physically,” Menter said. “It’s difficult on their families. We understand that and want to thank them for everything they do.”
For information on EMS training or joining a local corps, contact the Oswego County Emergency Management Office at 591-9150.
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