Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the United States, volunteers for local ambulance corps have had to change nearly everything about their work, from protecting themselves and modifying their vehicles to interacting with patients in an effort to be able to continue answering residents’ calls for help.
Capt. Rick Davin of the Yorktown Volunteer Ambulance Corps said that in addition to members donning personal protective equipment, or PPE, departments are changing their approach to answering calls.
“One of the difficulties we have is when we transport a suspected COVID patient in our ambulance, we essentially have a contaminated ambulance afterward,” Davin said. “We don’t bring any patients out of their home unless they have a mask on, and we usually do a front door-type interview process before going in and making sure someone puts a mask on that person.”
He added that under the new state protocol, police and fire personnel are no longer entering houses for ambulance calls for their own safety and after the call and transport are completed, sterilizing the ambulance is a four-hour process.
Somers Fire Chief Paul Jockimo said that members of the fire department and EMT have also had to institute changes, including the way they physically approach people.
“These days to be on the safe side we’re treating everyone as if they were COVID positive,” Jockimo said. “We’re donning PPE; it’s certainly a safety measure that is not unusual these days. We’re doing what we can with the information we have.”
Dan Murtha, captain of the Lewisboro Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said members of his department are coping the best they can.
“We were aggressive in obtaining extra personal protective equipment while still in the early stages of the outbreak of COVID-19,” Murtha said. “We have made some changes to our response protocols to try and limit the number of providers exposed” to the virus on any given call.
Maria Hlushko, captain of the North Salem Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said that due to the smaller call volume in North Salem, the corps has been able to handle calls during the coronavirus pandemic fairly well.
“It takes longer for the ambulances to be cleaned properly,” Hlushko said. “We’ve made some adjustments to the ambulance where we’ve sealed off the driver compartments from the patient compartment so there’s no chance anything will get into the front part of the ambulance.” And, she said, “We’ve gone over training with our personnel on the proper way of putting on and taking off PPE.”
However, she added, that aspect has been more of a refresher because volunteers already have been trained in those protocols. She also said the corps has added paid staff through a contract with Westchester EMS which operates for 32 hours, from 11 a.m. on Saturday to 7 p.m. on Sunday, to supplement its volunteer crew.
Dedication to their work
Corps captains praised the work of the volunteers, noting that it takes a certain kind of person to continue doing this work during a pandemic.
“Even as a volunteer, you come to this type of work because you have a ‘calling,’ ” Lewisboro’s Murtha said. “At times like these, there is really little hesitation to continue to do what we signed up to do, help our neighbors in need. As the captain and highest-ranking member of LVAC, I feel an enormous sense of gratitude to the members. They continue to put themselves on the line to try to keep our community safe. I think I can speak for most of the membership in saying that our pride in serving comes from helping our neighbors to the best of our abilities.”
Jockimo said he is proud of his crew’s compassion.
“Overwhelmingly, people that get involved in emergency services, become first responders, health care workers, by nature are rescuers. We’re people that want to help other people,” Jockimo said. “One of the stark realities, and we certainly see it more now because of the severity of COVID-19, is that there are some people that maybe we can’t help as far as sustaining life in the way that we’d like to be able to, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t help them and we don’t help their families. That’s one of the biggest things I see with my people here in Somers and all over the county, the amount of compassion and empathy that comes from the people who do what we do.”
Likewise, Davin said he is grateful for the dedication he sees in the Yorktown Volunteer Ambulance Corps members.
“The one thing I would say I appreciate the most is the dedication of our members who have stepped up and without even questioning,” Davin said. “They understand the severity of it. You can see the stress in people’s faces when we get a call and we hear, ‘coughing, fever, difficulty breathing,’ and you know it’s a person who is truly in need, but our members are then saying, ‘I’m putting myself in danger,’ but they don’t hesitate. It really takes a different type of person to do that on a regular basis and to come in and continue to answer the call without question.”
Kurt Guldan, president of the North Salem Volunteer Ambulance Corps and a member of the North Salem Board of Education, has organized an effort to have volunteers deliver surplus food from the North Salem Schools Food Pantry to those in need: the elderly, the immunocompromised, quarantined and financially struggling. Volunteers have been delivering food to about 50 homes in North Salem; in addition, others pick up food from the ambulance corps headquarters for distribution.
Mental health matters
With the added stress of working during the coronavirus pandemic, captains are make sure their members are mentally healthy as well as physically able to tow the line.
Hlushko said that the volunteers often act as a support system for each other.
“Everybody’s been hanging in there,” Hlushko said. “We’re lucky; it’s a good group.”
Jockimo said he uses his experience in crisis intervention in support of his Somers crew.
“I do crisis intervention all over the country. I do peer support, so, helping people address the stress. I’ve made a goal of somewhere between 10, 15, even sometimes 20 people a day that I call and check on. Sometimes it’s a quick text, sometimes it’s email, and not just for our members but throughout the community and state,” Jockimo said. “That’s what our people are doing and we are encouraging our people to do that.”
He added that the fire department has also placed banners expressing thanks to the medical staff at four local hospitals: Putnam Hospital Center, New York Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital, Northern Westchester Hospital and Westchester Medical Center.
“It’s a small way to say thank you for what these folks are doing,” Jockimo said.
Davin noted that often the ones going out on calls in Yorktown are in an age group considered more at risk for contracting the coronavirus.
“It’s stressful for our members because 60 percent of our calls come in the daytime hours of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., which is normally covered by a lot of our retiree-type folks,” Davin said. “We have a lot of people who still work and do their duties at night and on weekends, so on weekdays we have been fortunate enough to be covered by folks who have retired, which in most cases, automatically puts them in the most critical age categories for COVID.”
However, he added, he has been encouraging people to reach out to the county-provided counselors if they are feeling stressed.
“We have the county health hotlines, something we can utilize and use at our disposal, whenever we’ve had an incident, a tragic incident, that impacts our people. They have counselors available,” Davin said. “This week again, I’ve reminded our people if they’re feeling the stress from the COVID, going on these calls, they can reach out to these counselors both in Westchester County and New York State. The COVID hotline has people there to help first responders.”
Murtha said that mutual support in the Lewisboro organization has helped its members.
“It’s been a challenge, but we have an outstanding group and to a person, everyone is stepping up and doing all they can to help each other,” Murtha said. “As always, our members have access to all of the crisis management resources available internally and provided by the county and state.”
Helping the helpers
The captains said they’ve also received support from their communities, which goes a long way in lifting spirits. And he suggested people help support local businesses in this tough time and donate to local food banks.
“A town is just a town without its people. When people get involved and actually care about other people and take the action to help other people, that’s when it becomes a community,” Jockimo said.
Hlushko said the department is always in need of more volunteers.
“Down the road, we do need drivers, we need EMTs; we’re always happy to get new members,” she said.
Captains also noted that monetary donations are always appreciated, as well.
“Financial support is always needed and welcome, especially during this time when our costs to maintain appropriate levels of supplies are much higher than usual,” Murtha said.
But many in the community have stepped up in a variety of ways.
“It’s amazing to see so much support for us and our partners in the emergency services,” Murtha said. “A local family bought us a pizza dinner just yesterday. We’ve received many offers to donate or even sew us masks, and we received a beautiful chalk note at our headquarters that simply said ‘thank you.’ It’s gestures like these that inspire our members to serve.”
Davin expressed his gratitude to the Yorktown community, Lions Club, Supervisor Matt Slater and several businesses in town which have donated equipment to the department.
He also said he appreciated those who have been dropping off meals for members, which both saves them a trip that may risk exposure and reduces their expenses in service to others.
Davin echoed Murtha’s sentiment that donations are greatly welcomed, and both shared their advice about how residents can be most supportive during this crisis.
“Right now, if I could send everyone in the community one message, it would be this: Stay home,” Murtha said. “When people suggest taking a hike in the woods or going for a drive around town, it’s important to consider the potential risks. If you twist your ankle on the trail or have a fender bender on the road, how many emergency service workers will be put at risk to assist you?
How many people will you have to encounter to solve your problem?
“A simple nonessential trip could end up having serious health consequences for all involved.”
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