Chief Deputy Byron Waid of the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office will never forget the tornadoes that struck his part of Alabama on April 27, 2011. There were a total of five that day, beginning in Greene County, then crossing into Tuscaloosa County and winding down in Jefferson County. The tornadoes traveled about 80 miles that day.
“This was one of those 100-year storms you often hear about growing up,” says Waid. “The nation was focused on the F4 and F5 tornadoes that came through the middle of our town. But earlier that morning there were also three smaller ones that hit the more rural areas.”
In total there were 62 confirmed tornadoes across Alabama that fateful day. According to the National Weather Service, 253 people lost their lives as a direct result of the storms. Others died from injuries indirectly blamed on the storms—and thousands were injured.
A few months later, sheriff’s deputies and other local officials sat down for a debriefing to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses during this emergency situation.
Among the former Waid notes that the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office is always quick to respond and assist other agencies following hurricanes and tornadoes in neighboring counties, as well as throughout the Gulf Coast and state of Louisiana.
“We think we do an above-average job,” he says. “But what we never were prepared for was to be struck with a disaster ourselves. Our weakness was that we had no medical assistance and many citizens injured, and we couldn’t get help to them.”
In fact, it took the first ambulance about two hours to arrive on the scene, recalls Waid. “During the debrief we knew we had to solve this problem,” he says. “The decision was made through the administration that we needed to hire several paramedics as deputies.”
‘On the Scene Quick’
As luck would have it, Waid knew two paramedics who were interested. They were ultimately hired and went through the law enforcement academy. As that was happening, the sheriff’s office also began sending some of its regular deputies through basic EMT classes.
Nearly a year after the devastating tornadoes hit Alabama, the sheriff’s office rolled out its first-ever medical unit team. Today it has 17 licensed medics—seven paramedics and 10 EMT-Advanced or EMTs. The medical units work in all areas of the county.
Waid says the program has been unbelievably successful. He admits he was nervous at the beginning but has been pleased with how it turned out.
“We are in the second term with the current sheriff, Sheriff Ron Abernathy, and he has been highly supportive, as well as the county commission. The Alabama Department of Health’s EMS Division, which is the licensing agency in the state, has been supportive and great to work with as well.”
The deputy paramedics work closely with other EMTs, EMS agencies, and the local volunteer fire service, which has over 400 volunteer firefighters. Since they all have to cover 1,340 square miles of Tuscaloosa County, the additional help has been widely appreciated.
Abernathy notes that Tuscaloosa County is the largest land-mass county in Alabama, at 1,340 square miles.
“Even though we have a large urbanized area where the University of Alabama is located, the outlying areas are very rural. That’s a lot of territory to cover,” he says. “In addition, many of the volunteers from the local volunteer fire department are in town during the day working their full-time jobs. That’s why it was imperative to do this during the day shift. This program allows us to offer them support. They do a great job already, but we could help and supplement their efforts.”
Waid adds they have a good working relationship with the regional ambulance companies and fire departments.
“Everyone has been helpful and worked together,” he says. “They love it because we get on the scene quick. We’re already out in the rural area to begin with, so we get to the scene fast, and we can get those patients—our citizens—assessed, stabilized, and ready for transport as soon as the ambulance shows up.”
‘We Couldn’t Have Scripted This Better’
Deputy paramedic Tiffany Soper agrees. She says the dual role the deputy paramedics serve has been especially critical for the rural areas of the county.
“Most EMS personnel are few and far between in these rural communities,” she says. “We can get these residents medical attention faster than the local ambulance company. It may take an ambulance 20–30 minutes to come out to the rural areas, but we can get there in less than five minutes and provide EMT-level care immediately. We have saved many people with this program.”
Soper was in the EMS field for about six years before she joined the sheriff’s office. She went through the law enforcement academy while earning her license as a paramedic in 2013.
“I wanted to be able to help people, which is why I decided to become a deputy paramedic,” she says. “I love what I do, and I love to be able to be there when needed. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to provide that care.”
Waid expects the program will continue to grow in time.
“We’re like a small business and have taken baby steps as we’ve come along and gradually increased the number of personnel,” he says. “We don’t want to get too big too fast. It’s a very unique program as to how it works. We couldn’t have scripted this any better.”
Waid has some simple advice for other law enforcement agencies who may be contemplating on a similar program.
“First and foremost, involve your elected officials and community in the development of the program,” he says. “If you have rural areas like we do, involve your volunteer fire services as well. Let them tell you what they need.”
The feedback the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office received from its local VFD was extremely beneficial, Waid adds. “They told us they needed help Monday through Friday during business hours because that’s when most of the volunteers were working their day jobs. It’s also the time of day when there is more traffic on the road, and it slows the ambulances down to get to the patients.”
For those counties lacking medic personnel in rural areas especially, Abernathy highly recommends deputy paramedics.
“It’s an incredible asset for your citizens,” he says. “Some VFDs and entities don’t have any medic personnel, and this is a way to have that personnel out there. Even though their time will be predominantly focused on law enforcement, they will be able to respond and perform medical functions as needed. It would be an outstanding service to have in all counties across the nation.”
Embedded in the Community
In mid March the sheriff’s office will roll out its first evening-shift unit in the part of the county that receives the most EMS calls. By the end of the summer, it plans to roll out two more units.
“We’re hopeful in the future we can get an eighth unit, so we can have four units working during the day and four units in the evening, and slowly continue to build,” says Waid. “This serves two purposes: We can not only respond to emergency EMS calls, but we can become more embedded in the community and get to know the people who live there, especially those who have health problems. If we need to check on someone, we are happy to do it because we’re there to serve.”
Ultimately Abernathy hopes that within five years the county will have deputy paramedics working around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“These upcoming units will get us extremely close to that goal,” he says. “This will supplement our deputies and EMS services out in the county, and it will make all of us more efficient, which will undoubtedly help save lives. Whether it’s law enforcement or medical attention, the most important thing I stress in our business is the initial response. Getting to the scene quickly is so imperative, and this deputy paramedic program accomplishes both goals from a law enforcement and medical standpoint.”
Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer and social media consultant from Pittsburgh, Pa. He makes his living writing about health, law, social media, and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @danielcasciato.