How Volunteer EMTs Became America’s Last Line of First Response
They’ve provided emergency care in rural areas for decades. Will the pandemic push the system as far as it can go?
The 911 call came in for a panic attack and trouble breathing. Usually, this would be a typical call for Greg Girard, an EMT for Buck Creek Township Fire Department in Indiana, where his calming presence is often as vital as his medical expertise. In these scenarios, he bends down on one knee and introduces himself. He smiles, asks questions, talks quietly, and touches gently — whatever it takes to get a person’s breathing back to normal.
But this 911 dispatch came in May, mid-pandemic. Once at the scene, Girard had to soothe his patient while wearing head-to-toe personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by his fire department. Masks covered Girard’s and his partner’s reassuring smiles, forcing them to shout. “While they’re worried about staying alive,” he said, “you come in your astronaut suit, and it freaks them out even more.”
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Buck Creek Township sits on a flat swath of farmland about a half-hour east of Indianapolis with about 8,500 residents. Having an EMT-trained fire department means those who live in Buck Creek can count on emergency responders arriving on the scene within minutes of a 911 call instead of waiting 20 minutes or more for a neighboring town to send personnel. “Especially when a patient is critical, time means everything to them,” said Buck Creek Township Fire Chief Dave Sutherlin. “A minute can feel like an hour.”
Like health care systems nationwide, Covid-19 has not spared Buck Creek’s emergency medical responders. They have answered a barrage of respiratory and cardiac calls, which require increased PPE. The virus has also forced them to pause recruitment and fundraising. (Hancock County, where Buck Creek is located, has documented 429 cases and 35 deaths from the novel coronavirus.) “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Girard, who works part time for…