Herald Press reporter goes on ride along with New Britain EMS to learn firsthand what first responders deal with on daily basis

Published on Friday, 23 July 2021 12:30
Written by Catherine Shen


NEW BRITAIN – Working 12-hour shifts as an emergency medical technician is a grueling task, let alone having to face the added burden of a global pandemic.

“The psychological aspect of dealing with covid-19 is definitely different than when we’re dealing with our everyday emergencies,” said Mariah Hofmann, an EMT with New Britain Emergency Medical Services. “It felt like a black cloud just hit us at the beginning and I don’t know if anyone was mentally prepared for the impact.”

Hofmann hasn’t stopped running an ambulance since the start of the pandemic and credits New Britain EMS for taking care of its workers and providing mental health support when needed.

“The difference dealing with covid calls was telling the family members that they can’t go with their loved ones, and that was really tough,” she said. “Some understood why, and some were upset. There’s a level of trust when we tell them their loved ones will get the best possible care, but it’s still a difficult thing to experience.”

To understand the everyday lives and impacts of first responders, the Herald spent a day with EMTs and paramedics on the road and at its headquarters on Arch Street, witnessing healthcare workers managing large volumes of calls, making on-the-go decisions and collaborating with other local services.

Sean Fiske, a lieutenant and shift supervisor at New Britain EMS, starts his 6 a.m. shift by exchanging information with workers from the previous shift and discussing any major issues. The crews would then inspect and clean all vehicles, making sure all medical supplies are well equipped, and coordinate with the New Britain Police and Fire Department for any potential cases.

Compared to other cities, Fiske said New Britain EMS fared a lot better than most during the ongoing pandemic.

“Initially we got a lot more calls, but the numbers dropped off because people started to fear going to the hospital,” he said. “Then call volumes increased again not because of covid, but more general illnesses. People were still getting chest pains, having respiratory issues or common colds. While the increase wasn’t crippling, the consistency of it still kept us very, very busy.”

There were days where they would receive up to 60 calls a day, and that can be overwhelming for the six-ambulance service station that operates an average three-minute response time to calls. There are currently about 60 road staff and 35 academy staff, including administration and instructors.

The first call of the day during the ambulance ride along for Fiske was helping EMTs respond to an older woman who had a hard time breathing. She was carried out of her apartment in a wheelchair by EMTs, with the assistance of the fire department. Fiske’s role is to provide support and make sure his EMTs had what they needed to help their clients.

Calls like this happen frequently for a number of reasons, Fiske said. “The city has few resources but because the hospital is close by, we can turn calls quickly. People call us because they know we can get them the care they need and sometimes we’re able to provide the medical attention without having to go to the hospital.”

Joel Gonzalez, an EMT who trained at the New Britain EMS Academy, hit the ground running when he started his new job at the start of the pandemic.

“It was like the best and worst time,” he said. “The work is already stressful and nerve-wracking and then we had to worry about a virus that we knew nothing about at the time. I never felt scared and was prepared for it. But it really helped that everyone here was alert and confident and made sure we all had the support we needed.”

As Fiske was preparing to head back to headquarters after the first call, another call came in while on the road. He immediately turned on the sirens again and made his way through the streets to a local business, where a woman was found unconscious in the restroom due to potential drug use.

It turned out to be a false alarm. But Fiske and the EMTs still had to learn about her personal history, take down any relevant information, and direct her to services if she needed them.

“We will never deny services,” he said. “But in cases like this where a hospital visit isn’t needed, we make sure that the person is OK and that they know where to go if they really need help.”

Out of the average 15,000 9-1-1 calls the New Britain EMS receives every year, about 11,000 calls require actual hospital transport while roughly 3,000 calls are either refusal for services or false calls. On the day of the ride along, New Britain EMS received 39 calls for service during the 24-hour day.

The day was also at the peak of the summer heat wave and weather events tend to drop in call volume, whether it’s a heat wave, heavy rain or storms where people tend to wait the weather out before deciding to go to the hospital, said Alex Morisano, captain of New Britain EMS.

“It’s interesting, in a heat wave in particular, where overall call volumes may drop during the height of the day’s heat,” he said. “But heat also causes calls for certain types of emergencies to increase, such as asthma related emergencies, heat stroke for those working outside, dehydration symptoms in at risk populations who don’t always have a cool place to take shelter.”

Several EMS staff was out handing bottles of water to those on the streets and helping them find shelter when possible as part of their day’s work.

One of the last calls during Fiske’s shift was responding to another call that involved an elderly woman with breathing issues. When he got to the scene, both fire department members and a second ambulance service from UConn Health Emergency Medical Services also arrived to support.

“We call in outside resources that we collaborate with when we don’t have enough ambulances,” Fiske said. “In this case, they were close enough to be able to help.”

It was a tense and delicate situation because while the first responders assessed the client’s health condition, they also had to deal with a family member who has severe mental illness and was bellowing for all the “strangers” to leave her apartment. They simultaneously provided medical attention to the client while trying to keep the atmosphere as stress free as possible.

After 20 years of EMS work, Fiske said he learned to shrug off moments like these but hopes to remind people of the cumulative stress first responders experience.

“It can be very difficult and it can be very sad,” he said. “It’s always high anxiety and sometimes it’s hard to stay compassionate. There is a toll that takes on first responders when we deal with those emotions but it helps that we work together and that we understand each other.”

Due to regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, names of the clients are withheld to ensure confidentiality.

Contact Catherine Shen at cshen@centralctcommunications.com

Posted in The Bristol Press, General News on Friday, 23 July 2021 12:30. Updated: Friday, 23 July 2021 12:32.