The COVID-19 virus is pushing many volunteer ambulances to the brink: some have ceased operations because of lack of funds and volunteers. Fortunately for our town, the Suffield Volunteer Ambulance Service is financially healthy with plenty of supplies and volunteers.
John Spencer became the Chief of the Suffield Volunteer Ambulance Association just before COVID-19 hit. He recalls that in his final interview, he said he was ready for a challenge. He didn’t expect the challenge he received. The coronavirus quickly surged. John faced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). The cost of supplies skyrocketed. The fear of risking the lives of his crew was realized when a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT) became critically ill when responding in early spring to the outbreak of the virus at Suffield House where 15 people died and 138 residents and staff tested positive. Fortunately, the EMT survived, but is still recovering. Calls for the ambulance service dwindled dramatically, by 8-10%, because residents were afraid to go to the hospital, fearing exposure to the virus. Revenue also dropped.
John was able to adjust the operational budget based on the projected decrease in volume and revenue. Leveraging the nonprofit status of the ambulance service and wearing his second hat as the Emergency Management Director for the town, John was able to purchase a few months-worth of PPE from a Colorado company. The cost was reimbursed by the town which ultimately received a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant. A PPE distribution from the State of Connecticut further added to the stockpile, which is now robust and able to provide protection through the duration of the virus outbreak. Now with the vaccination available, John expects that most, if not all of the crew, will receive the second shot by mid-February.
Meanwhile, throughout the year, worries persisted. The level of stress soared. The calls that came in for ambulance service may have been fewer, but were more acute. Patients were sicker than normal because they had postponed going to the hospital. And, in the fall, the Connecticut Department of Corrections moved all of their symptomatic COVID -19 positive inmates to the MacDougal Correctional Institution in Suffield, requiring the ambulance association to be the sole provider of emergency transportation for the prisoners. Because of this action, December was the busiest month in five years for John and his crew, with one-quarter of the calls coming from the prison.
Despite all of this, the ambulance crew continues to come in day after day, shift after shift. John and his crew take an enormous amount of pride in their ability to answer each call. Instead of struggling to retain its members, the service has added new volunteers and has never stopped recruiting. Additionally, college students who were qualified volunteers, returned to service when colleges closed. Even though Connecticut’s Emergency Medical Services paused its EMT examinations for a short while, Suffield never stopped providing an EMT course, now instructing via Zoom. Interest in joining the ambulance service continues.
The Suffield Volunteer Ambulance Association is staffed twenty-four hours a day. At least eighteen of those hours include a paid paramedic. In the near future, John hopes that a paid paramedic will be on staff all twenty-four hours. There are several levels of staff. The first level are drivers with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification. Emergency Medical Responders make up the second group who are certified through a sixty-hour course. The bulk of the crew consists of EMTS with a minimum of 150 hours of training. The final group are the paramedics who have received a two-year college degree. A service call requires at least two members, but normally up to four people respond to a call.
Permanent changes brought by the pandemic will be better communications with staff and with the town administration. A revised contract with the State regarding ambulance coverage for the MacDougal Correctional Institution is pending. Suffield’s service to the prison will continue up to a certain threshold of calls, then the University of Connecticut ambulance service will become its primary server during the pandemic. And, when the pandemic dies down, John and his staff will look to the future by beginning a strategic planning process aided by a consultant.
John has a strong support system at home because his wife is a frontline nurse. He also has support on the job.
Suffield is lucky to have such dedicated people on the ambulance service.