As a 14-year-old, I started volunteering with the First Aid Service Team (FAST) at the local American Red Cross. The primary function of the FAST program was to train young people in basic first aid and CPR, and to set up and staff first aid stations at various community events in the area. This was my first real look at the field of EMS. While most of the situations we encountered were relatively minor and only required a Band-Aid or icepack, we were occasionally in the right place at the right time and had the opportunity to assist the fire department medics with sick patients.
As a high school senior, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after graduation. I knew I wanted to do something fun, something exciting and something that mattered. At 18 years old, in the middle of my senior year, I applied to be a volunteer with the local fire department. The testing process was fairly extensive, with a basic knowledge exam, a physical ability test, an oral board interview, a psychological evaluation and finally a drug screen. It was several weeks before I was officially offered a position and started the 44-hour Washington State First Responder class, the minimum certification required at that time.
My first year as a volunteer was a tough one. I was told that state law indicated that because I was not an EMT, I could not be the sole provider in the back of an aid car with a patient (an additional EMT had to be present), and I was not 21, which prevented me from driving a department vehicle. This didn't stop me from doing everything I could to get out on calls. I was assigned to a combination career/volunteer station, so volunteer-only responses were not all that common. Occasionally, during a working structure fire or other resource, emergency volunteers would backfill the remaining apparatus in the station and be available for subsequent alarms. For the next six months or so, I went to the fire station whenever I could to ride with the on-duty career staff. This was the best way for me to go on more calls and obtain more patient contacts. The following fall I was sponsored into the EMT-Basic class offered by King County EMS at the newly constructed City of Seattle Joint Training Facility.
It wasn't long before I found that maintaining proficiency in EMT skills was going to be difficult as a volunteer with an irregular schedule and limited patient contacts. I applied for a full time EMT position with a nearby ambulance company, and before I knew it, I was cleared from the field training program. It's hard to explain to a non-EMS person how you are able to be woke up in the middle of the night and drive to someplace you've never been to take care of someone you've never met. Our EMT programs do a great job giving us experience taking vital signs, obtaining patient history, administering oxygen and immobilizing and packaging people for transport. The one thing they can't give us is what I learned as a young EMT can be most important…life experience.
No matter how good your EMT school and field training programs may have been, the real test comes when you hit the street for the first time. I distinctly remember my first call after training. Not because it was a memorable call, but because it was the first time I realized what I had gotten myself into.
We pulled up on scene behind the fire engine, and I jumped out of the driver's seat to grab the gurney. We loaded up the patient, my partner got a report from the captain, and then it happened. I positioned myself back in the driver's seat, and my partner looked at me through the pass-through and said "Alright, we're set. You can head for the hospital." My response… "Ok…where's that?"
You will undoubtedly encounter situations that you have never even imagined that will require you to think critically and make split-second decisions in less than ideal conditions. Rarely do things happen the way the EMT book says they should. As a 19-year-old just out of high school, I remember those late-night calls for the assault victim with scene unsecure, the intoxicated person, and the 66-year-old male who "states to be pregnant with the baby Jesus." It was eye-opening to see some of the things that happen after dark. You really do learn to see the world differently through the windshield of an ambulance.