DBEMS responding to Thruway crash in March. Photo by Thomas Heffernan, Sr. / Special to Spotlight News
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series regarding Delmar-Bethlehem EMS, which is celebrating the fifth anniversary of a merger that joined first responders from the northern and southern parts of Bethlehem.
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By ALI HIBBS
BETHLEHEM — The Delmar-Bethlehem EMS squad will kick off its fourth annual fundraising campaign next month. Conducted through the mail, it is the only active fundraising the non-profit organization does, despite saving taxpayers millions of dollars since the Delmar and Bethlehem EMS services combined forces five years ago.
The annual campaign is held in May to coincide with National EMS Week, which takes place during the third week of the month.
“This year’s theme is going to be ‘Stronger Together,’” explained DBEMS Chief Steve Kroll, “and that’s apropos because that’s what we’ve gone through in this community.”
According to Kroll, Bethlehem residents were responsive the first three years that DBEMS sent out mailers, with donations making up around five percent of the budget. However, as the north station will soon be moving into its new home, he said, “this year will be really important.”
While the town is footing the $4 million cost of building a new station at 114 Adams St. in Delmar on town-owned property, DBEMS will have to find the money to outfit the new building.
“It’s going to be an excellent, brand-new building,” said Kroll, “but we’re going to have to furnish it and we’re going to have to buy a lot of equipment for it.”
He said the squad will need to install a generator and an information technology system, as well as a security system to keep both staff and equipment safe. Money raised this May will help to make the new space “habitable,” he said.
The town and DBEMS have long known the agency needed to find a new home. Since splitting from the Delmar Fire Department in 2010, the EMS agency has continued to rent space at 145 Adams St. However, it has slowly been displaced as the fire department continues to grow. While DBEMS still keeps both ambulances in fire bays, its personnel have moved into a rented house across the street where an extra emergency vehicle is kept outside. In cold weather, said Kroll, that vehicle must be kept constantly running constantly to keep emergency supplies at required temperatures. In addition, he said, there is no space to store files which are currently “in basements all over town.”
“Everything will be where it belongs in the new space,” he said, smiling.
“We’re not really a celebration crowd,” said Kroll, explaining that DBEMS has not planned a fifth anniversary celebration nor an event-based fundraiser. “Lots of friendships are built here, we have people who have met their future spouse here, husband and wife teams that ride together. There’s a lot of social activity, but never really a time when we can all go out and party.”
Indeed, there are always at least two, two-person teams on premises, along with a trainee and often an additional medic, and a medical director on call. Even though DBEMS already boasts a “robust” volunteer force, bucking trends across both the state and nation, Kroll said he would still like to double the number of DBEMS volunteers in coming years to more than 120.
While volunteer forces in more rural areas of the state have seen dwindling numbers for years and, in many cases, are left with a skeleton crew of aging responders, DBEMS has managed to attract an impressive number of dedicated EMTs and paramedics—of all ages—who are willing to donate their time and a wide range of skills.
According to Kroll, the “average” age of a volunteer is anywhere between the ages of 18 and 70. “We have a growing group of young adults,” he said, noting that it has allowed some of the older volunteers to finally retire. “Some of them were tired at the time of the merger,” he said.
Kroll also pointed out that more than 40 percent of the EMS corps is made up of women. He said that fostering diversity is something his organization takes pride in, and that DBEMS members respect and appreciate each other.
“Everybody treats you the same,” said DBEMS Captain Jen Kerr. Growing up in a family that was active in Delmar EMS, Kerr said it was simply natural to her to donate her time as well. “This is home,” she said with a smile.
In each station, there are three bunk rooms to accommodate a medic and two-person ambulance crew on shift. While the doors lock, it’s far more common to find staff socializing in the station’s common areas between calls.
Kerr joined the agency at the age of 18. After completing her classroom EMT training, she began training on an actual ambulance. From there, she said, she worked her way up to crew chief. As captain, she is now DBEMS’ second-in-command.
“We’ve done a great job of having women in all levels of our leadership,” she said. “Our board, our operational leadership is, I would venture to say, even half female. So we have a lot of feminine voices across leadership, which is really nice. I don’t think that we really have any barriers for women.”
Male or female, Kerr recommends volunteering to anyone who is interested in learning about emergency care, gaining more experience in the field or sharing skills they’ve already acquired.
Experience, Kroll said, is one of the reasons that volunteers are drawn to DBEMS.
“If you want to learn how to be an EMT, this is the place to go,” he explained. “We get 10 or 11 calls each day. If you come here, you’re going to get experience. If you’re in a small town, you may only get three calls a week. This is a profession where experience builds on your skills.
“We get people from all over,” he said. “Kids that are pre-med and want experience, nurses, physical therapists.”
Kroll said it also makes it easier to attract volunteers when you already have volunteers. In EMS organizations that are stretched thin, a prospective volunteer would be making a considerably larger commitment.
In 2010, after experiencing difficulty keeping daytime shifts staffed for several years, Delmar EMS made the decision to switch to a hybrid staffing model in which some responders are paid staff and others are volunteer. It is a model DBEMS has maintained—and is a big part of the reason that it is able to pay for quality training and equipment, which also attract potential volunteers.
According to Albany County EMS Captain Brian Wood, who works closely with DBEMS to supply paid county paramedics and coordinate shared EMS services, there is little animosity between those who donate their time and those who are compensated. In fact, he said, there are some who do both.
“First of all, we wouldn’t put up with it,” he said. “But, really, this is just a great group of dedicated individuals who go into some really tough situations together. You have to trust each other.”
EMS volunteers do not need to have careers in the medical field—many, including Kerr, do not—or go to school for years. Other than completion of an initial EMT classroom course, paid for by the state and DBEMS, and subsequent field training required before a responder can go on calls, volunteers can choose the extent of additional time and training they want to invest. There are different levels of EMT training: basic requires approximately 150-190 hours of training; advanced EMT certifications are available at intermediate and “critical care” levels, which require a greater time investment; and an advanced EMT paramedic certification can require as much as 1200 hours of training, but allows the responder to perform a wider range of potentially life-saving techniques. (DBEMS sends a paramedic out on every call.)
While Kroll asks volunteers to commit to one shift a month, he said most work six hours a week or 24 hours in a month. He hopes to recruit more volunteers, he said, “because then we’ll be able to do other things, like get out into [the] community and teach CPR and first aid.” He also predicts that population growth will soon necessitate a third overnight ambulance crew.
Benefits of the job, Kroll noted, are not limited to experience and flexible schedules, or to the social interactions between members, but include interactions with community members as well—even those who may be in need of their help.
“There’s nothing like walking into the room and seeing someone’s WWII certificates of meritorious service,” he said, “and you realize that these are the people who made our country great.”
Asked what she likes best about working with DBEMS, Kerr said, “Being able to help the community I grew up in.”
“When people call us, they’re having a bad day,” said Kroll, who tries to instill his new recruits with the same compassion. “When someone needs you, remember that they’re having a bad day. I think we do it because we like doing good things for the community.
“And I have a family,” he added. “I would want someone to show up at my house.”