Prison Riots Led to ‘Finest Hours’ for EMT

CAMP HILL, Pa. — Beth Ann Burkholder didn’t have a crystal ball.

But 18 months before two nights of rioting at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, she wrote a 50-page mass-casualty plan in her role as Cumberland County emergency medical services coordinator.

She used that plan during the riots.

The Mechanicsburg (Pa.) woman, who died Jan. 4, admitted in a 1990 interview that she was “overwhelmed” by the 1989 riots.

Laurie Beecher of Wormleysburg, Burkholder’s close friend for years and former emergency medical technician partner, said it never showed.

“The riots were Beth’s finest hours,” said Beecher, now an administrative coordinator for West Shore EMS. “She was in charge and confident, real organized and knew what she was doing. She had key people in key positions. The team really worked. Everything clicked.”

Burkholder, then 28, directed the responses of 152 people staffing 32 ambulances during the prison riots of Oct. 25-27, 1989.

Ironically, she wasn’t even supposed to be there because she had started vacation a few hours earlier.

During the 1990 interview, she remembered hearing the prison call and joking “Maybe this is the big one. Then I decided to go over. As I got to the rear gate of the prison, I saw a ball of fire.” When she heard that the mass-casualty plan was activated, she “started to worry how the plan would work.”

Burkholder followed the plan, setting up inside, outside, front and back perimeters, then triage, treatment and transportation areas.

In the next two days, the team treated 128 people, transporting 101 of them to hospitals for trauma, smoke inhalation, chest pains, heat exhaustion, diabetic problems and more.

Later, she admitted feeling overwhelmed. “People in emergency medical services are normal humans with normal feelings that we need to vent. Those patches on our shoulders don’t make us superhuman,” she said.

Beecher said she and Burkholder were volunteer firefighters and EMT partners at the then Wormleysburg Fire Company.

Michelle DiBerardine of New Bloomfield, who also was one of Burkholder’s EMT partners in Wormleysburg, said, “Beth talked to people on their level and put them at ease. Patients felt like they were in good hands with her. She was very sure of herself.”

Burkholder, a former paramedic with West Shore EMS and Lebanon EMS, stopped working as a paramedic after she suffered a broken foot when she fell through a set of steps during an ambulance call in 2001.

“She had six surgeries on that foot,” said Nancy Burkholder of Carlisle, Beth’s mother.

“She was in a lot of pain after that. She founded B.A. Burkholder Consulting and worked for fire companies, police departments, boroughs and various offices,” she said.

Burkholder missed working on an ambulance, DiBerardine said, adding, “That was a huge chunk of her life gone.”

Bob Shank of Conewago Twp., York County, said he knew Burkholder for more than 30 years.

She was “very detail-oriented,” said Shank, who was a Hampden Twp. EMT for 18 years.

“Beth wrote such excellent documentation on ambulance calls that instructors used her as an example of how to do it right,” Shank said.


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