‘Your heart has to be in it’: Brooklyn EMS volunteers share what it takes

A future police officer and firefighter wait their turn to play balloon pop at the Brooklyn EMS’ 25 Year Celebration event on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
Brooklyn EMS members demonstrated extrication during a mock car crash at the Brooklyn EMS’ 25 Year Celebration event on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
Plinko was one of the many games kids could play at the Brooklyn EMS’ 25 Year Celebration event on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
Kids got to use the firehose during the Brooklyn EMS’ 25 Year Celebration event on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
Brooklyn EMS members demonstrated extrication during a mock car crash at the Brooklyn EMS’ 25 Year Celebration event on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
A timeline of all the different uniforms the Brooklyn EMS members have donned over 25 years.

When Evelyn Hall, one of the nine past directors of the Brooklyn EMS, would ask emergency medical technicians why they volunteered, the bottom line would always be “I want to help people.”

For Cory Lloyd, who has been a member of the Brooklyn EMS for around a decade, witnessing her Dad volunteer while she was growing up made her want to serve the community, as well.

“I kind of grew up with the fire and EMS district,” she told the Observer.

Her dad was one of the founding members of the organization, which formed in July 1996.

Hall has been involved for around 18 of its 25 years, and was the director for five years. She joined after having just retired from her career when she happened to pass a sign that said “EMTs needed during the day.”

And while Hall said what drives people to volunteer varies person to person, she joined because she, like many, wanted to help people.

The only stipulation, she was told, is that you have to be 18 years old.

“I laughed, that was not my concern,” she said.

Lloyd said growing up with her dad being a member and her mom working in the healthcare field encouraged her to volunteer.

She began in 1999 and was a member for about five years before she took a break to raise her children. She’s been back for about four years, she said.

Her only regret about the time off from serving was that she let her EMT license lapse, meaning she had to go through the 120-hour technical college program again.

There is a refresher course that must be completed every three years to maintain an EMT certification, Hall said.

The initial semester-long program is a mix of classroom and practical training, she said, and EMTs must also become certified in CPR, as well.

For those who volunteer, “you have to be able to handle critical thinking on the spot – not be afraid of blood or things that you might encounter,” Hall said.

Volunteers can’t have lifting restrictions, at all, and communication is key, particularly on the radio, she said. They must also be able to handle high-stress situations, she added.

“As long as you feel you can do it, go for it,” Hall said.

Hard work, little pay

Getting volunteers can be a challenge, Lloyd said, with many not being able to commit to certain times such as weekends or during the weekdays, because of having jobs or family and other obligations.

And part of that challenge is the volunteer aspect – everyone except for a few part-time day staff are virtually unpaid other than a small stipend – EMS volunteers don’t get paid an hourly rate, Lloyd said.

“Although they receive some compensation, it is a tiny fraction of the value of their work,” the fire department’s website states.

But Hall said she believes having a mostly volunteer EMS force has saved taxpayers money.

Prior to the formation of Brooklyn EMS, services were provided by surrounding communities including Oregon, Evansville, Belleville, Stoughton and Albany, Hall said.

While still “a fairly small service,” with just one ambulance, it currently takes over 200 calls a year, Hall said.

What it takes

Besides for an individual having a sense of wanting to care for or help someone, the role requires dedication, Hall said.

“People who volunteer are willing to get up in the middle of the night, be out in any kind of weather,” she said. “Your heart has to be in it or you’re just not going to do it.”

As volunteers have to be able to get to the fire station within five minutes of a call, the station has rooms for people who live further away to stay in all day or sleep overnight.

The role also requires people who are physically and mentally strong, she said.

Volunteers must be able to handle all types of calls, from someone giving birth to someone experiencing breathing difficulties.

And while many calls have a good turnout as far as the patient is concerned, for some calls, no matter what volunteers do to help, they can’t save a person’s life. Or as first responders, they find someone dead.

“That can cause some real mental health, PTSD or burnout issues,” Hall said. “Either you can stand it or can’t stand it and didn’t think it would be this hard. If you can’t handle it and can’t stand these things we’re seeing, you have to get out of it, or you’re going to be a wreck.”

And they must like interacting with people of all ages, as EMTs don’t just serve one age group, they serve everyone from newborns to the oldest members of the population, Hall said.

While Brooklyn EMS would like volunteers to provide 48 hours a month and attend a monthly training, it will take what it can get, Lloyd said.

“If you’re worried about the training or time commitment, we take all the help we can get,” Lloyd said. “We aren’t hunting you down if you can’t do 48 hours. Whatever you’re willing to help with, it’s very rewarding to help people and a great way to serve and do your part for the community.”

Evolving skill set

With each passing year, more skills and technology keep getting added to the work of being an EMT, current Brooklyn EMS director Justin Wicik told the Observer.

With an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine, the technicians can get a reading of someone’s heart and send it to the hospital, which can have resources lined up for when the ambulance arrives.

The machine has evolved over the years from being a 4-lead to a 12-lead, which means the number of electrodes placed on the body has increased – providing a more complete picture of the heart’s electrical activity, Wicik said.

“As tech that transmits data becomes more available like cell phones and defibrillators – it steers where some of your qualifications go,” he said. “They keep adding more skills to the basic level of being an EMT, and that’s something we do have to maintain and adjust to, but it’s all for good. And we’re always looking to update and add protocols.”

The EMTs are also now approved to carry more medications than they once were.

Starting out, they couldn’t even carry aspirin, but now they carry epinephrine (EpiPen), which can be used for life-threatening allergic reactions and naloxone (Narcan) which rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.

“We’ve had several calls to administer Narcan,” Wicik said. “Law enforcement and the public are pushing it everywhere. Due to the opiate crisis, it’s one more thing added to our tool box. A lot of the real world steers where our skills come from.”

Wicik said the EMT certification course he took back in 2000 was 140 hours long, while today it’s pushing 196 hours.

In Wisconsin, once someone passes the EMT certification course they have to pass a national registry exam, something not mandatory in all states, Wicik said.

But if they pass, they can go to any other state with that registry exam and be a licensed EMT.

The national registry sets base requirements for state of Wisconsin EMT testing, plus both the state of Wisconsin and Dane County have additional, separate protocols added to that testing.

The EMT protocols Brooklyn EMS follow are set by Dane County Emergency Management, a committee made up of a team of doctors and other stakeholders who review things like the Stroke Scale – a widely used tool to assess the cognitive effects of a stroke – and the acronym FAST (facial drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulties and time frame) to help guide if EMS response should be more aggressive or less aggressive, Wicik said.

Something that has changed over the years is response to cardiac arrest. Today, EMTs generally do hands-only cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Technicians are nervous about putting their mouths on an unconscious person, plus just the compressions alone can keep oxygen circulating, Wicik said.

“Having to breathe for that person is not the most critical thing,” he said.

Brooklyn EMS hold Stop the Bleed and CPR trainings to help educate the community about the most current response protocols to emergency situations.

“People don’t realize just how dedicated these volunteers are – it’s something where you don’t expect anything back,” Friends of the Brooklyn EMS member Chris Johnson told the Observer. “Until I lived with a volunteer, I never knew the time commitment.”

“It is a commitment that’s for sure,” Wicik said. “But the community needs you.”

Reporter Neal Patten can be reached at [email protected]