OSWEGO — “EMS Strong: Ready Today. Preparing for Tomorrow.” For Oswego County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) providers, the 2020 theme of National EMS Week “means we’re ready for business as usual from the 911 call to transport to the hospital, and we’re preparing for something more like COVID-19,” says Kenneth Dolan, operations manager for Donald F. McFee Ambulance Service.
Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) adapt to whatever the situation is on a daily basis according to Norm Wallis, director of operations for Northern Oswego County Ambulance Service (NOCA). During COVID-19 response, “preparing for today teaches us how to react to future infectious diseases.”
As Oswego County celebrates National EMS Week May 17 to 23, EMS agencies and providers are thanking the community for their support during the COVID-19 pandemic and throughout their 66-year history of ambulance service. “We appreciate all they’ve done for us, from donating personal protective equipment (PPE), to all the efforts of the community,” Wallis says. “They’re helping us help them.”
“Even the simple things like saying ‘thank you’ on the take-out card in the meals they send us” means a lot, Dolan adds. “No little thing goes unnoticed.”
Seven ambulance services provide pre-hospital care to the public from dispatch from the Oswego County E-911 Center through transport to Oswego Hospital and hospitals in Onondaga and other adjacent counties. They include Menter Ambulance, Donald McFee Memorial Ambulance, NOCA, North Shore Volunteer Ambulance, Oswego City Fire Department, and Student Association Volunteer Ambulance Corps at SUNY Oswego (SAVAC). Brewerton Fire Department Ambulance, based in Onondaga County, serves residents in the southern end of the town of Hastings. They include both for-profit and not-for profit agencies and are staffed by paid and volunteer EMTs.
Over 500 EMTs respond to roughly 2,000 calls a week, with many providers working for multiple agencies. “Our rosters might hold 30 people for each agency, but that doesn’t mean 120 providers,” says Michael Zukovsky, director of operations for Menter Ambulance. Providers work multiple jobs both because they love what they do and to earn enough to live on. “While the EMS system here is staffed well for a day, there just isn’t bench strength when anything big happens.”
The EMS agencies’ response to the pandemic “shows the diversity of our field,” says Lyle Robbins, operations director for North Shore Ambulance. “We’ve become pretty flexible.”
EMS has always been an entity tasked to teach the public as EMTs provide on-scene and in-transit health care. “We never know what situation we’re going to be in, whether it’s a stroke, a coronary case, or an extrication at an accident scene,” Robbins notes.
To help prepare for and respond during the pandemic, EMS agency leadership have been participating in weekly virtual meetings to coordinate response. “We brainstorm solutions to problems we’re facing and strategize how to best serve this community to keep the work force strong, healthy and ready to serve,” says Renee Fox, emergency management coordinator/EMS coordinator for the Oswego County Emergency Management Office. “Our EMS community has been exceptional.
“Oswego County leadership has been very supportive of EMS during the pandemic,” Fox notes. “They took measures early on to protect providers by assisting with obtaining personal protective equipment and offering expedited testing for potential exposures. This allows providers to know their status and continue providing safe care for the community.”
They haven’t been able to do it alone, during the pandemic and throughout the history of EMS. “It’s impossible to do our jobs without working with other agencies,” says Dolan. “When we bring a patient to the hospital, everyone on the call does everything we can to ensure a positive outcome.”
“From the time a person calls 911, a rather large team is involved from dispatch to the hospital,” Wallis says, including the EMTs, fire service, and law enforcement at a minimum. “It’s collaborative.”
“Fire and EMS response has been a cooperative effort and is going very well from the fire side,” says Oswego County Fire Coordinator Donald Forbes. “We work together very well, from small, one-house calls to mass-casualty incidents.”
Call volume for EMS has dropped during New York Pause, and the agencies are seeing fewer transports. “We’re still going on calls, but more people are refusing transport to the hospital,” says Robbins. “We’re still spending money going on the calls, but we’re not getting revenue back for transport.” It’s taking a toll on the financial side. But the level of gratitude from the community has increased. “People are worried about exposure to the virus, but they’re very happy to see us,” he says.
“There’s an incredible amount of trust in this job,” Dolan says. “We’re invited into the house without a question on the worst day of people’s life.”
“EMS is the gateway into medical services,” Robbins says. “That means we’re the educators for a lot of people.” Right now, during the pandemic, EMTs are working even more with the public to calm their fears and provide them with vetted information.
“Our relationship with the community is stronger and more visible” with the pandemic, Zukovsky says. “We’re learning how to deal with large, uncontrollable events. The community’s support of EMS is very appreciated. We’d like to hug the community and bring them into our EMS community.”
The EMS community traditionally thanks its dedicated EMTs, fire service members, and 911 dispatchers with the annual EMS Banquet during EMS Week, which this year has been postponed until Friday, Sept. 18. “The EMS community’s peers nominate EMTs for awards for outstanding service,” says Robbins, who serves as EMSAC’s chair for the banquet committee. Life Saving Awards honor the teams that jointly save a life, including everyone involved in the call. “Other people and activities are just as worthy as the ones we honor with awards,” Robbins says. “We’d like to recognize everyone.”
EMS agencies have been a strong force throughout the emergency medical field’s history in Oswego County. “COVID-19 has made EMS stronger and made us more of a united front in the face of this pandemic,” Zukovsky says. “It comes down to the community. I do it because I love it, and I work with people I care most about.”