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Survivor Assistance Officer Helps Crews Return to Service

“Signal 7 on Gospel Island.”

A Nature Coast EMS (NCEMS) paramedic was summoning Lt. David Sotrines to a scene in the middle of the night.

Sotrines is responsible for the implementation of NCEMS’s new Survivor Assistance Officer Program and knew three things right off the bat: That EMS had arrived to find a deceased patient for whom nothing could be done; the crew felt the surviving partner needed acute assistance—it just wasn’t medical; and he or she likely had no local resources to call upon for support at this hour.

Sotrines assured the responder that he’d be there in 10 minutes and, if the crew had another call, they could leave. That’s what every call to this officer means. “It gives the crew an overwhelming sense of peace to know they will not be leaving a traumatized family alone,” says Teresa Garentz, director of the Citrus County, FL-based ambulance company.

The part-time position started last June when Sotrines, then a logistics officer who occasionally rode on calls, identified an obvious need. Citrus County, a semi-rural retirement community of 120,000 outside of Tampa, FL, has a growing population of elderly newcomers, often meaning older couples who do not have a close network of family or friends nearby. When someone in this situation died at home, the responding EMS crew felt they were abandoning the distressed survivor when they had to return to the field. Now they just call Sotrines, who stays with the survivor, “taking care of practical or emotional loose ends,” Sotrines notes.

His duties might include calling the medical examiner, the funeral director, or children in faraway states. Though the position is modeled after the state’s Victims’ Advocates Office, Sotrines makes it clear he’s not doing social work or counseling.

“Sometimes I just make coffee and sit with them until they’re okay for me to go or family starts arriving.”

Not that Sotrines gets a lot of calls.

“It’s not for every family of a pronounced patient,” he is quick to point out. The Survivor Assistance Officer Program is for people who don’t require transport to the hospital and don’t qualify for other existing services such as hospice or Medicare social services. The ambulance crew chooses the situation—usually when they encounter someone without community or familial resources, or in an inordinate amount of shock from the sudden loss. Between June 2003 and February 2004, Sotrines responded to 16 calls and attended 15 funerals.

All seven of NCEMS’s primary transport ambulances and two paramedic vans are happy to have such a program, says Garentz, who has led the private nonprofit company since 2000.

“As soon as David introduced the idea, the crews were calling him. It was hands-down the easiest new protocol I’ve ever integrated into a system.”

For Sotrines, whom Garentz characterizes as “the kind of guy who does everything for people,” it’s a labor of love, and she says he would’ve done it for nothing.

Asked how she fits the added non-EMS cost into the budget, Garentz says, “How do you not fit it into the budget?”

—KR

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