Thirty-five years ago, the Pittsburgh Emergency Medicine Foundation (PEMF) was created to support emergency medicine research and education. At that time, emergency medicine was a new specialty in medicine and was rolled under general medicine/internal medicine in most hospitals and medical schools.
“There was little funding for street medicine as it was seen,” says Beth Wolfe, executive director of PEMF.
Recognizing this need, Paul Paris, MD, along with some influential Pittsburgh-based attorneys, accountants and others, created the foundation to assist in the funding. They mainly supported the Affiliated Residency in Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the educators at the Center for Emergency Medicine of Western Pennsylvania.
Since its inception, the Foundation has funded over 200 grant requests to physicians, researchers, paramedics, EMTs and others in an effort to increase awareness and interest in the field of emergency medicine. When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, PEMF wanted to do something more. One of the board members, Lynda Dupre, sent an email asking if this was something PEMF could help with.
“She thought that this fit our mission perfectly,” says Wolfe. “While we knew that we would not be able to provide funding to all EMS agencies in Western Pennsylvania, we thought that if we raised a little money, we would be able to help a few during this trying time.”
Dupre wrote in her email: "If not this, then what does fit our mission?"
With that response and the first donation of $5,000, PEMF developed the Pandemic Grant Program in April. The organization asked board members what they were willing to donate to get the funding started. In 18 hours, the board internally raised $18,000 for this program.
“We continued to reach out through our Facebook posts and created a special section on our webpage with updated information regarding the grant with the ability to accept donations,” says Wolfe. “The City of Pittsburgh created a second Give Big day of giving and we immediately posted our information to participate.”
The members took this request to heart and provided the majority of the funding that it received. Total donations for the program equated to $20,100, all of which was awarded to requestors.
“We kept no money for administrative or any other fees. We funded every single request received at one of the levels that we set,” says Wolfe.
PEMF’s normal avenue for acquiring grant money is through its annual fundraising events. Each year, it holds multiple events in partnership with other organizations. The monies raised at these events dictate how much PEMF has to award the following year; however, the Pandemic Grant Program needed a quicker turnaround than previous requests.
“This was an immediate need from services that are already struggling to make ends meet,” notes Wolfe. “All we did was ask and continue to inform those that we were asking of how important this was. This money was going to the front line responders in a pandemic with a virus that was ever-changing.”
As quickly as PEMF raised the funds, Wolfe says that it needed to just as quickly distribute them. In 24 hours, PEMF created a basic application for the grant and made it clear that the funds were to be used to support the front line crews in their basic needs.
“With the shortage of PPE, we let services know that we would not be funding requests for money to purchase PPE; they needed to address other basic needs,” she says. “Our application was very simple to complete. We only asked for contact information, funding idea (how will these funds be used specifically to assist during the COVID-19 pandemic) and the amount requested."
The application included the following:
Due to the large number of requests expected, please understand that we will:
Only be funding EMS/first responder services
Limiting the amount requested up to $500
Limiting the requests to only one per service
Not be providing funding for PPE at this time
The turnaround time on the funding was very quick—PEMF funded 62 EMS agencies in 10 counties in about five weeks. Each day, the committee reviewed and approved the amount of funding. In most cases, services were notified within 48 hours of requesting and had the check in hand within one week. The grants awarded were available on three levels—small, medium and large services.
“We based our funding on how large the service was, the geographic area that they covered and their call volume in the past year in an effort to treat each request fairly,” says Wolfe. “We knew that they all needed help, and we wanted to help as many as we could with the money that was available.”
The requestors asked for assorted items to help crews, such as food, water, Gatorade, personal hygiene items and cleaning products. The services wanted to ensure that crew members had the ability to shower and clean their clothes at the station before going home and risking exposing their families.
Nora Helfrich, RN, EMT-P, director of Tri-Community South EMS in Bethel Park, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, says that as with other services, her EMS agency was suffering the effects of COVID-19 with decreased revenue and call volumes.
“This unexpected grant could not have come at a better time,” she says. “We are a municipal government that receives no tax dollars to operate the service. Our refrigerator for our base had stopped working and we were trying to determine where we were going to get the funds to replace it. This grant was the answer to our dilemma. Through their kindness and generosity, we were able to purchase the refrigerator. We are extremely grateful for their generosity.”
Other requests included new grills or other cooking appliances that stations were going to purchase, but additional expenses during the pandemic put them on the back burner. With the crews working longer shifts, these items were needed as most services were prohibiting the acceptance of outside food. There were also requests for a portable shower, decontamination devices, cots, blankets, televisions for training and downtime, isolation pods and gift cards.
“Every request that we received was funded,” says Wolfe. “Not one service was turned away. While we wish that we could have fully funded every request, we did provide funding to help every one of the services that applied.”
The only thing that PEMF asked in return, according to Wolfe, was that agencies informed them when the purchase was made along with a photo of it being used.
“We received numerous calls, texts, emails and notes from the crews thanking us for thinking of them,” she adds. “We made it clear that this money was not for the service payroll or to hold for future purchases, but to make life a little easier for the EMS professionals working the front lines. Our members really stepped up during this difficult time and are extremely proud that they were able to provide some of the basic things that get overlooked during these emergencies.”
Douglas A. Pascoe, PHRN, chief of SouthEast Regional EMS (SEREMS) in Jefferson Hills, PA, says that they were grateful to PEMF for the generous donation.
“The gift could not have come at a better time as many EMS agencies were suffering substantial reductions in call volume and reimbursements,” he says. “SEREMS used this money to purchase fogging equipment, which assisted our crews in rapidly disinfecting our units and returning them to service within minutes.”
Chris Dell, assistant chief of administration for Baldwin EMS in Baldwin, PA, was also appreciative of the donation. “The funds were used to subsidize our program of providing meals for our crews who, in order to minimize risks of COVID, were restricted from leaving the station to acquire such.”
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.