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An EMS Account of the Unrest in Ferguson

As events unfold once more in Ferguson, MO, this time in the wake of a grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, reports and images coming out of the community continue to show riots, looting and violence toward law enforcement officers.

Chris Cebollero, NREMT-P, chief of EMS for Christian Hospital in St Louis, MO, has been on the front lines of the tumult, both in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s shooting and now again in this latest swell of unrest.

Speaking to EMS World on Tuesday afternoon, Cebollero sounded tired but resilient.

“We knew what had happened in the past and we kind of used that to our advantage to prepare this time around,” Cebollero said. “There are so many big things that happen in EMS that are national news—Sandy Hook, Columbine, the Colorado theater shooting, Ferguson the first time it happened. One of the things I try to do as a best practice is after we gather some of the information from those other areas, I sit down with my leadership staff and the folks on special operations and say, ‘This just happened at the corner of blank and blank, how do we deal with it?’ And we play the scenario out as if it happened in our own backyard. These things are so few and far between, yet they’re happening everywhere so we’ve got to be prepared for our time to happen.

“Now, with that said, that gave us an operational foundation to say after the last time events in Ferguson happened, this is what we learned from it, so what do we prepare for the next time,” Cebollero continued.

According to Cebollero, the EMS response to the recent spate of violence was greatly aided by that planning process and the inclusion of additional personnel to handle events as they unfold.

“Believe it or not it wasn’t a very big EMS night,” Cebollero explained. “We saw a number of shootings, assaults and a couple of folks who were hit with objects. Of course, there were people who needed decontamination from tear gas. But we’re operating the Ferguson event separately from business as usual, so we have a special strike team that’s set up just for the event. Right now that consists of five trucks—three of those trucks we supply and two of those trucks are coming from our peers around the region, who we truly appreciate for their assistance. But what we’re seeing is the results of what you guys are seeing on TV. We’re seeing some smoke inhalation, some shootings, some assaults.”

Cebollero said in spite of the chaos being depicted on TV, so far everybody his crews have come in contact with has been appreciative of their help. And CHEMS is doing everything it can to keep its crews safe. “My job as a leader is to make sure that everybody gets home at the end of their shift. As a department we’ve taken a position that we’ll make sure they get home, and we’ve outfitted them as necessary.”

Unfortunately, Cebollero also doesn’t think the latest round of violence will come to an end any time soon. “I think the worst is yet to come. Last time it was 19 days and I don’t see where we’re going to be any shorter than that. I don’t think we’ve seen the worst by far. I think last night there were people watching the TV who feel that justice wasn’t served, and they’re going to have something to say about it.”

Christian Hospital EMS (CHEMS) was recently awarded the 2014 Dick Ferneau Paid EMS Service of the Year award at EMS World Expo in Nashville, TN. CHEMS is the third busiest 9-1-1 provider in the state of Missouri, serving more than 250,000 people and responding to approximately 46,000 calls annually. CHEMS’ fleet consists of 22 ambulances and two command/triage vehicles staffed by 80 full-time first responders and 40 on-call responders. In addition, there are eight full-time dispatchers providing services for CHEMS and Alton Memorial EMS.

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