Houston firefighter Jim Schaferling has been a paramedic for 23 years. During that time, he’s worked his fair share of sick-person calls and house fires.
However, when it comes to one of the worst calls he’s ever run, well, that happened when he was a college student working for Texas A&M University EMS, an ALS care provider staffed by college students.
Even today, he said he still thinks of that call, part of what he termed “quite the experience for a bunch of 18-22 year olds” who worked cardiac arrests, suicide attempts, burn victims and violent assaults, because most were fellow students around the same age.
But back to the call.
It was after a football game, and a family of five was leaving the campus airport when they crashed into the fire training academy next to the airport.
“We were the first there. There were power lines down, jet fuel everywhere, a fatality, but worse were the survivors trapped in the wreckage screaming,” Schaferling said 20 years later. “I still think of that day every time I fly or drive by an airport and smell that sweet smell of jet fuel. That is a lot to absorb at 21 years old, but we helped each other cope with those things and formed bonds that will last a lifetime.”
He was quick to note that his friends and the bonds they shared are what he remembers most about his first few years working in prehospital healthcare, a career he started when he was 18.
“I could not wait to get on that ambulance,” he said of his first days in College Station, Texas, providing first aid at football games.
“The time we spent together on duty, the crazy parties we had, the terrible experiences we helped each other through have kept us friends to this day,” said Schaferling.
“We kept that service running 24/7/365. It was important for us to remain in service to gain credibility with the big boys [College Station and Bryan Fire].”
He wasn’t alone.
Twenty years ago, college students involved in campus-based EMS agencies from New York to Texas were the subject of a feature article in JEMS. Now, Schaferling and other students profiled in that article reflect on how collegiate EMS influenced their lives and careers.
David Kingdon, a student at Bates College in Maine in 1997, now works as a paramedic supervisor for Maui County EMS and as an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, Kapiolani Community College. But back in the 1990s, he and some other EMTs and interested students saw the need for a campus EMS system that ultimately became a state-licensed emergency service. They became lifelong friends.
“More than 20 years later, I still get together to ski with some close friends from Bates, two of whom were in our first Bates EMT class and became founding officers on the team,” Kingdon said. “Not only was our shared service with Bates EMS part of the experiences that bind us as friends to this day, I still especially enjoy hearing their stories of volunteering with ambulance services in towns around Bates.”
Aaron Segal, MD, now in Denver as vice president and national medical director for one of the nation’s largest medical groups, said if it weren’t for EMS he wouldn’t have met his wife, wouldn’t have fantastic stories and likely would never have considered a career in healthcare.
“I spent more time in the squad room than my own apartment, even when I wasn’t on duty,” Segal, a Texas A&M University graduate, said. “I enjoyed the science, the patient interactions, the teamwork, the adrenaline and the camaraderie.”
Scott Savett, PhD, was an EMT-B and EMT-Intermediate with Clemson University EMS and said he remembers being one of the first to use bicycle-based first response on Clemson’s campus with a minimalist “first-in” bag. Savett said, “Many parts of Clemson’s campus were ideally suited for bike EMS and I was frequently the first EMS on scene.”
Savett said he also got his introduction to staffing large venues while working football games and concerts at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium which seats more than 81,000.
“It was quite an EMS operation, especially during the first games of each football season when the warm South Carolina weather was unforgiving for patrons who didn’t stay hydrated. More than 30 EMTs and medics were strategically located in teams of two throughout the stadium. It was my introduction to large venue EMS, which still comes in handy.”
Beyond just being the first to provide emergency care, Schaferling said teamwork was one of the most valuable skills he learned working in prehospital healthcare as a college student.
“It taught me that the people you work with determine your collective success or failure. As a leader, success is not because of you, it is because of the people around you. EMS requires teamwork.”
Matt Belzak in 1997 at Syracuse University.
Matt is now a trauma nurse in Washington, D.C.
Independence & Confidence
Matt Payne, MPA, a graduate of Syracuse University, said he built on his experience working for Syracuse University Ambulance (SUA) as an undergraduate student. He served as student director of the health-center based system that also ran mutual aid calls in the city if necessary. He worked part-time as a paramedic with what is now Rural-Metro Ambulance and as a dispatcher for the student system. After he completed his master’s degree in public administration, Payne joined the Department of Health and Human Services as a presidential management intern supporting the National Disaster Medical System.
“My prior work in EMS gave me the tools to survive in government and support emergencies at the federal level.” Payne now works for FEMA where he serves as the director of the Division of Policy in the Office of Policy and Program Analysis, coordinating the review of FEMA’s homeland security preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation policies.
“What stands out to me is the independence we had to run the ambulance service,” Payne said, thinking back 20 years ago. “Under the guidance of a full-time director, the students were responsible for running the calls, coordinating with local hospitals, and providing basic life support to students and visitors. Working at SUA provided me with confidence to make quick decisions, the responsibility to lead a team and care for a patient, and the exposure to an emerging field that has led to a 20-year career in government.”
One of his co-workers in Syracuse, Stephanie Ayer Mueller, EMT-P, said that it helped her choose a career path as a paramedic and dispatcher as well as helping her learn coping and time-management skills.
“Whether it’s the calm voice on your worst day during a 9-1-1 call, or the confident voice telling an officer in chaos I have help coming to him, or the elderly female who isn’t dying but needs a compassionate hand to hold on the way to the hospital, being on both sides of the radio gives me a unique perspective, one I started at SUA ,” Mueller said. “[Working at SUA] took a scared, insecure shy girl and turned her into a confident, purposed strong woman.”
Like Payne, Daniel Kaniewski, PhD, gained his first management experience at George Washington University. Further, like Kingdon, Kaniewski worked, at the time, for a start-up EMS system at George Washington University primarily responding on bicycles.
Now he works at a firm that does catastrophe risk modeling for the insurance industry and teaches at Georgetown University.
“Our organization was a start-up; it was the first year we were operational. And I became a supervisor my freshman year. That management experience proved beneficial in my subsequent jobs.”
Those subsequent jobs included working as the director of response policy at the White House during Hurricane Katrina.
“College-based EMS gave me operational experience,” Kaniewski said. “The experience of managing those medical emergencies gave me the confidence to manage large-scale incidents later in my career.”
And Kaniewski spoke with pride when he reminisced about the 20-year reunion GW EMS had last fall.
“We couldn’t believe that back then we responded on mountain bikes. Now GW has two ambulances.”
Like Kaniewski, Justin Davis admitted working for his college-based EMS system influenced his career directly. Now the chief executive officer of two hospitals and one of Pennsylvania’s largest private EMS services, he got his start at Harpur’s Ferry/Binghamton EMS in upstate New York.
“My experience as part of the leadership team of Harpur’s Ferry in my senior year is what caused my family to recommend I look into the field of healthcare administration. Truthfully, I had never even heard of healthcare administration before.”
His experience running calls influenced his future career in more ways than one. “I learned the value of teamwork. I worked a nightshift every week with a team of people that I trusted-and they trusted me,” he said. “I was able to expand my involvement in a leadership role in my senior year. That was my first experience as a leader in a healthcare-oriented organization.”
Some of those experiences he remembers more fondly than others, but “most of them I would not want to see published in your magazine.”
“We were college kids that were trusted to operate a $100,000 ambulance and help make a difference on our campus and in our community. We learned together, had fun together and made a difference together. We studied together, went to parties together and spent training weekends together.”
Kingdon said it was his work beyond the campus that was invaluable.
“One of our goals as we developed Bates EMS was to engage students more meaningfully in their community-certainly their campus community, but also in the city and surrounding towns that host the college students. The students provided a service to the towns, and the towns provided invaluable experience to the students.”
David Kingdon was a student at Bates College in Maine, and now works
as a paramedic supervisor for Maui County EMS and as an assistant
professor at the University of Hawaii, Kapiolani Community College.
Josh Tournas, MD, who acknowledged his parents would say that he’d wanted to be a doctor since he was six years old, solidified his decision to go into medicine by working for Syracuse University Ambulance and because of the camaraderie the members of the crew developed.
Now a dermatologist with offices in Scottsdale and Flagstaff, Ariz., he remembered, “Being on the backup crew in your dorm room and having the [pager] crack in the middle of the night. Pizza parties at base to watch new episodes of ER even if you weren’t on shift. Working games and concerts at the Carrier Dome. Driver training class. It was a great time.”
He said he learned to treat the college-based EMS system as the real-life experience it truly was.
“This wasn’t kids playing ambulance,” he said. “Sure, there were a lot of drunk college kid calls, but we worked with the university health center on a program to have students who were too intoxicated to stay home but not too seriously ill to be monitored at the health center instead of the hospital. Mutual aid went both ways.”
Most of all, Davis, who was then pursuing a doctoral degree in chemistry, concluded, “I’ve always believed that EMS should be fun, and that we should take ourselves a lot less seriously than the job itself.”
Savett, too, was working learning lessons that have helped him through his career.
“To know that someone is relying on you to save his life is a heavy load on a 19-year-old,” Savett said back in a 1997 article in JEMS. He added, “Besides developing valuable medical training, I also learned a lot about responsibility, respect and communication.”
Now, 20 years later, Savett, who said his job as a senior software analyst in laboratory information management systems (informatics) is “decidedly not in EMS,” he volunteers at a 9-1-1 ambulance squad outside Philadelphia. In addition, he serves as the vice chair for that organization’s board largely thanks to the experience he gained as a student manager, including grant writing to time management, including the soft skills so valued by employers today including personnel administration, resource management, public relations, budgeting, interpersonal communication and leadership.
Savett’s experiences at Clemson EMS, IU-EMS, an organization he helped found and now called Intra-Collegiate EMS at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Ursinus College, got him on his start in what he terms his “side career.” It was during his college EMS times back in the 1990s that he remembers taking Clemson’s first on-campus firefighting boot camp and rappelling off the back of the football stadium. “I’m pretty sure I had a smile on my face the entire way down.” And using a backboard as a sled following a heavy snow. “The 9-foot clip-on straps made for good hand holds as we zipped down the snow-covered hill on the edge of campus.”
Scott Savett was an EMT-B with Clemson University and is now a
senior software analyst in informatics, and volunteers and serves as the
vice chair for the board of a 9-1-1 ambulance squad outside Philadelphia.
EMS became Savett’s link to medicine and an outlet to directly participate in patient care even though he chose a non-medical career path.
Savett also pointed out that there are challenges with being involved in EMS as a college student.
“An overnight call the night before a big test can really disrupt studying-or worse,” he said. “I remember two of us missing a physics test at Ursinus because we were stuck on an ambulance [non-campus squad] at an overnight mutual aid fire standby. As we watched the sun rise over the burning factory, it was clear we wouldn’t be making it back to campus before our 8 a.m. test. Thankfully, the professor was understanding.”
Schaferling said he had similar experiences at Texas A&M University, a university he chose specifically because of the student-run EMS system.
“I have no doubt that I would have obtained a much higher GPA had I not spent so many hours down in the squad room or had to skip classes because of runs,” he said. But he couldn’t stop there. “You will see terrible, gross, sad, tragic things that most people never see, much less have to actively manage, things that will haunt you for years. You will also bring people back to life. You will make someone’s day better. You might also be the first one to hold that newborn. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Neither would Davis. “At least one night a week for three and a half years, I was working at Harpurs Ferry,” he said. “Once I was trained as an ambulance driver, I often covered other shifts or responded from home to ensure we were able to cover our call volume. Being involved in college EMS has so many positive attributes, but you must be willing to put the time in.”
Still, all of them agreed, the benefits outweigh the costs, at least in the long run. Davis, who first became a hospital chief executive officer when he was 29, said, “My previous EMS experience has helped me as my organization acquired and then expanded our EMS agency.”
In the three and half years that he’s been the CEO of Commonwealth Health EMS, that organization has grown to staff more than 50 ambulances, seven quick-response vehicles, a full-time ground critical care transport service (a first for the area) and Commonwealth One, a critical care helicopter.
EMS dispatch at Texas A&M University in 1997.
Payne made similar use of his knowledge, skills and abilities working in EMS. He said, “As a hiring manager at FEMA, I always look to see if applicants have firsthand experience in emergency management. Those with a background in EMS can relate to the needs of survivors and understand the urgency and critical nature of the work. If or when you move to a programmatic or policy position in emergency management, this first-hand experience provides the context necessary to understand the true impact of your work and decisions.”
When looking back on his time with campus EMS at Clemson, Savett recognizes that his college experience was a unique one. “Campus EMS provides so many real-life experiences that can’t easily be taught in a classroom,” he said while working a Sunday night shift, “How many 19-year-olds have that sort of experience under their belt?”
Schaferling echoed that sentiment.
“Beyond the skills and knowledge you acquire, you learn patient skills, bedside manner and basic human interaction,” Schaferling said. “Many of your interactions won’t require a bandage applied, a shock delivered or a drug administered. Many require just a sympathetic ear or helpful advice. You can’t learn those things in a classroom.”
JEMS: College Students Experience Emergency Medicine at Rowan University by Ari Bross, EMT-B
National Collegiate EMS Foundation (NCEMSF)
Founded in 1993, the National Collegiate Emergency Medical Services Foundation (NCEMSF) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to scholarship, research and to creating a safer, healthier environment on college and university campuses through the support, promotion, and advocacy of campus-based emergency medical services. The Foundation is committed to the advancement of existing response groups and assisting in the development of new response groups.