Dorothy Baron, 82, Bill Peters, 65, and Aric Homola, 18, provide medical service for a Wyoming town of about 1,000 people. Photos: Benjamin Rasmussen, Maddie McGarvey and Emily Kask

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?

Brian Edwards and Marion Renault
Published in
13 min readJul 2, 2020

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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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Brian Edwards and Marion Renault
Writer for

Brian is an investigative reporter and Marion is a science journalist. Their work has appeared, respectively, in the AP, ProPublica, NYT and The Atlantic.