Post 53: An adrenaline rush, reality check for teens

Post 53: An adrenaline rush, reality check for teens

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Darien News-Review (CT)-October 14, 2009

Author/Byline: Maggie Gordon

Section: News

         Editor's note: This is the second in a series where the Darien News shadows town civil servants for an entire shift. On Sunday, reporter Maggie Gordon visited with members of the Post 53 volunteer ambulance unit. Next week, she'll participate in a Darien Fire Department training exercise.

         Ryan Saffa's bright blue eyes are rimmed with red veins.

         It's 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, and the 18-year-old Emergency Medical Technician is finishing up a 24-hour shift at Post 53, the nation's only teen-run EMS squad. Over the course of the last day, Saffa -- who serves as Post 53 president -- and his crew have responded to seven emergencies, including several night-time calls that roused the teenagers from their bunk beds.

          "That's life at the Post," Saffa said as he showed off the sleeping quarters. The boys' room has five beds, stacked into bunks with madras sheet covers. The girls are housed on the opposite side of the building, where six polka-dot decorated bunks are clustered in a bedroom. The boys are not allowed in the girls' hallway, and the girls are not allowed in the boys' area.

          Trusting the teens to cohabitate is just one of the responsibilities bestowed upon crew members of Darien's official first responders. They are also trusted to drive the ambulance to all calls and man 24-hour shifts every day of the year.

          While most Post 53 members are not yet legally adults, they receive all the same training as adult EMTs.

           "It surprises some of the patients," said Jessica Van Ingen, 17, the crew chief for the Sunday evening shift.

            Sometimes patients are hesitant to let the teenagers treat them in the beginning, but patient attitudes often change after they are taken care of, Van Ingen said.

          "They're amazed at how well-trained we are," she said.

              To qualify as a candidate for Post 53, interested teens must complete 25 hours of first-aid and CPR training. After three months, the members of Post 53 vote to accept candidates as full members. New members begin their tenure at Post 53 by working as "radio roomies," by answering and recording dispatches. After their radio service, members are expected to learn the location and function of each piece of equipment on the ambulance and pass a written and practical examination on this topic. Then they are moved up to "rider" status, where they begin riding along with the ambulance squad.

 After serving as a rider, Post 53 members who are at least 16 years in age are able to take the state's EMT certification class -- a 140-hour long course taught over a six-month period. Once the teens are certified as an EMT, they can move on to be a driver. Drivers must have their license for at least six months and pass another test.

          Post members look for a certain kind of candidate when choosing new members, according to Richard Koch, an EMT and former Post 53 director who is serving as the adult supervisor for the evening.

       "Some people are book smart, but if that can't translate to using their hands, then they're not the full package," Koch said. "We look for team players, people who can be calm during an emergency. ...

There has to be a little bit of ice water in your veins."

          There are about 60 high school members and 25 to 30 adult supervisors in Darien's 39-year-old program. There's no set rule or average of how many shifts or hours the teens take on per week, but Darien High School senior and Post 53 member Katharine Macomber, 17, said she typically works a 24-hour shift about once a week.

          During the school year, this means the crew drives the ambulance to school in the morning. They carry radios to their classes and head to the ambulances if an emergency is dispatched to them. When students have a test, they're expected to hand their radio to another Post 53 member.

           "School comes first," Macomber said.

           At the Post 53 headquarters on Ledge Road, there is a computer lab for the EMTs to utilize, and members can be found scattered around the couches in the main room with laptops open, though Saffa admits that the computers aren't always used for education purposes: Facebook time has to be squeezed into their busy schedules at some point. The computer room is equipped with a bookshelf full of calculus text books, SAT study guides, "Gray's Anatomy" and emergency care guides.

            Downstairs, as night falls and a new crew takes over, Post 53 members gather around the dining room table with take-out dinners as they settle into their shift. The Yankees are playing the Twins on the television in the background.

           "I can't imagine high school without this experience," said Megan Archey, 15, a sophomore who is serving as a rider for the Sunday-night shift.

           The six members on shift are talking and joking, slapping high fives and text messaging. They are all smiling; it's a light-hearted mood, but that can change in an instant.

           "It's amazing how different everybody is when you go on calls than when we're all hanging around here," said Willem Sandberg, 17, who is serving as the driver for the Sunday night shift.

          While the light-hearted banter and family-style dining is fun for the members, Macomber said it's the calls that make it all worthwhile.

            "The best part is when the tones go off and you respond to a call," she said. "Cars are pulling over for you and you're 16 or 17 years old."

             It can be an adrenaline rush, Macomber said.

              It can also be a hard dose of reality, said Van Ingen.

              "I'll never forget my first death," Van Ingen said as she sat on one of the donated couches in the middle of the main room. "They covered him with a sheet. It was so weird. "| We came back to Post and talked about it. It was hard to wrap your mind around trying to save him and having him die."

            Her crew members nod. Death is something they've each come in contact with during their tenure at Post 53. Coping with the loss of life is an important part of their jobs as fully trained EMTs.

             "No one our age really around the country does this. Just having that in the back of your mind is unique," Sandberg said. "At this point, it's become pretty normal -- the novelty has worn away. But that just makes you realize how special it really is."

          There are no calls while the Darien News is at Post 53 between the hours of 4:30 and 10:30 p.m. It's a slow evening. Van Ingen said that Post 53 usually averages about three calls per shift.

            A slow night is a good thing, Van Ingen said. It means no one in town requires emergency assistance, and it gives the teens a chance to relax and catch up with each other. Several of the crew members build a small bonfire outside and roast marshmallows.

            "The earliest I've ever gone to bed here is midnight, but that's just me. I don't want to miss what's going on out here," Van Ingen said.

           Though it can be tempting to stay up all night on the couches, Van Ingen said that serving on the Post has helped her learn her limits.

          "When we go to college, we're not going to have that 'Oh my God, it's 1 a.m. and I have so much to do' feeling. We're used to that. We have the time management," she said while sitting around the dinner table with her crew mates.

         Maccomber nods. "It's good training for college -- you have to share a room with people," she said.

         This elicits a giggle from Van Ingen."I've learned a lot," she said. "I've even learned I talk in my sleep."