Rescue Squad Volunteers Persevere Through Covid

For The Leader/Times

WESTFIELD — When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Westfield a little less than a year ago, residents were quick to thank frontline healthcare workers through online messages, signs in driveways and donations. After nearly a year since the beginning of the pandemic, the Westfield Volunteer Rescue Squad (WVRS) is still dealing with coronavirus-related challenges.

WVRS President Art Cooke and Estelle Cervantes, a member and the 2020 president, spoke with The Westfield Leader and The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times about the squad’s responsibilities, coronavirus-related issues and recruitment.

The rescue squad provides residents with free “basic life support” and care — such as CPR, first aid, dealing with cuts, broken bones and difficulty breathing — as well as transport to hospitals, Mr. Cook said. Rescue squad members must first ride along with the ambulance as observation before taking a course that is approximately the length of a college semester and then pass the National Registry EMT exam. Even after passing the exam, Ms. Cervantes said, members continue to learn new skills.

When the pandemic hit and residents were told to social distance and stay home, EMTs were expected to respond to any resident with any number of issues who called 911. Suddenly, Mr. Cooke said, the number of available EMTs dropped.

“We had a number of members who went on Covid leave,” he said. “Maybe they had someone in their family who had an underlying condition that they didn’t want to risk exposing them to Covid.

So they wound up taking family leave, which cut people off of our shifts. Then we also had some of our members who went on medical leave … because they may have been exposed to Covid, so they had to go into a 15-day quarantine period, which then created unexpected holes in the shifts.”

Mr. Cooke said former squad members “pooled resources” to figure out how to fill the gaps in the schedule. He said the squad increased funding for one of its bigger recruiting tools by offering scholarships to members who were willing to pull extra shifts.

“We think we’ve solved it,” Mr. Cooke said, noting that almost all of the shifts are now covered. When the squad doesn’t have enough members to fill a shift, it relies on its mutual aid system with the county and/or nearby towns like Scotch Plains, Cranford and Garwood to cover for it. “There will always be an ambulance” for residents, Ms. Cervantes assured The Leader and The Times.

“We also had disruptions to what I would call the training pipeline,” Mr. Cooke said. Spring training classes were either limited in participants to adhere to social-distancing protocols or canceled entirely, he said. So probationary members were not becoming full members at the usual rate.

Since the rise in cases in May, Ms. Cervantes said, the squad has restricted how many people could be in the ambulance at once, leaving probationary members even further behind.

Probationary members are not the only ones left behind, however. Ms. Cervantes said the restrictions on numbers in the ambulance also means no family members or friends can travel with patients to the hospital in the ambulance, with an exception for children.

Ms. Cervantes said that when hospitals were receiving an overwhelming number of Covid-19 patients, they would limit the number of patients allowed in the emergency room.

“Some of our shifts would have to wait two, three hours at the hospital to be able to bring a patient in, put them in a room and then be able to correctly sign off and have one of the nurses take over patient care,” Ms. Cervantes said. “We are not able to just leave a patient at a hospital in a chair somewhere. That’s negligence. So we would have to wait.”

Mr. Cooke added that ambulances are not allowed to idle in front of the emergency room but require a large amount of power to keep air conditioning and heating on for the patients as they wait.

“What Overlook had to do was bring out big extension cords,” he said. “If they knew they were going to be sitting out there for a lengthy period of time, they could charge their batteries.”

After responding to a Covid-19 call, the ambulance needs to be decontaminated, Ms. Cervantes said. The squad wipes down surfaces and uses an ultraviolet light to kill the coronavirus. The time it takes to properly disinfect the ambulance is more time that the vehicle is unusable for other calls.

If a caller reports symptoms of Covid-19, the crew is responsible to put on extra protective gear beyond the usual N-95 masks, surgical masks and eyewear, Ms. Cervantes said. The squad has special biohazard suits, respirators and face shields for these calls. Putting on the gear takes extra time but is a necessary precaution for the squad members, she said.

The rescue squad is always welcoming potential new members, Mr. Cooke said, as “we want as many people as possible to try it and get involved.” Many people join because they are considering a career in the medical field and want experience, he said. Ms. Cervantes, for example, is in her third year of medical school.

“I really think that being an EMT helps you be more confident with the medical field,” she said. “It was definitely one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life, hands down.”

“It’s worthwhile,” Mr. Cooke said. “It’s a great way to volunteer and give back to the community.”

Anyone interested in joining or learning more about the rescue squad is encouraged to find the squad’s application online or at the building, located at 335 Watterson Street, Westfield.

To view more stories like this, please SUBSCRIBE.