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Ambulance workers adapt to COVID-19 reality

Paramedics and EMTs at North Memorial Health Ambulance's Park Rapids and Walker bases are handling the stress and added work of the pandemic, ambulance base manager Troy Mayer says.

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EMTs Kallie Zeller, at left, and Sara McCloud work around one of the North Memorial Health Ambulance trucks Thursday at the Park Rapids base. (Submitted photo)

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to ambulance workers’ work routines and job stress, but according to a local ambulance base manager, they’re adapting well.

Troy Mayer, manager of North Memorial Health Ambulance’s Park Rapids and Walker bases, recently spoke to the Enterprise about it.

Starting in 2009 as a medic with North Memorial, Mayer has also managed ambulance bases in Fosston and Detroit Lakes, and has served in his current role for six-and-a-half years. He currently manages 28 paramedics and EMTs, divided evenly between the two bases.

“The difference between an EMT and a paramedic is the amount of training and the ability to do different things in the back of an ambulance,” he said. “To break it down simply, an EMT practices BLS, or basic life support, and a paramedic practices ALS, or advanced life support – the ability to give certain medications and to do certain treatments that an EMT’s training just doesn’t cover.”

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Troy Mayer

On the front line

In his management role, Mayer runs the day-to-day business operations of the ambulance base: “Hiring, personnel, performance reviews, making sure people are at the right place at the right time and have the right equipment, all of the logistics that makes the ambulance come to your house when you dial 911,” he said, describing the EMTs and paramedics as the front-line workers.

“They’re out there, taking care of the patients and making sure that they get the high-quality care that they expect when they call 911,” he said.

Each base’s personnel divides up into three 24-hour shifts, further broken into 12-hour blocks.

“We have 12 hours of what we call primary, and then 12 hours when they have a little bit longer response time, and they’re actually the secondary ambulance for the area,” said Mayer. “So, we always have one truck on primary, ready to go out the door within a minute of getting the call in both bases, and we always have a second truck that’s ready to go” in the event that another truck is needed when the first is already on a call.

Ordinarily, the base responds to about eight calls during a 24-hour period – plus or minus a couple, depending on the season and the area’s fluctuating population.

During the past year, however, Mayer said there have been wide variances in their workload that, at first, caught them unprepared.

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“All the rules that we’ve operated under for the longest period of time just all went out the window (last) year with the COVID response,” he said. “So, we’ve had a period of below-normal volume, and we’ve had periods of extreme high call volumes. Some of our days in November, we had up to 24 requests for service with 18 transports in one day. So, that taxes the crews quite a bit.”

Calls that didn’t end with a patient being transported to the hospital included some lift assists and calls that were canceled en route.

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The back of their ambulance has space for Zeller and McCloud to work around the cot and storage for a wide variety of equipment and emergency medical supplies. (Submitted photo)

Crew morale

Asked what he likes about his work, Mayer said it’s the people he gets to work with. “I’m not working the front lines anymore, and out all the time in the patients’ homes, but working with all the team members here is what I enjoy the most,” he said. “Speaking back to when I was working the front line, it was always helping people. At the end of the day, that’s why most people get into this profession, is to help people in that time of need, and to be that service in the community.”

He acknowledged that several members of the Park Rapids and Walker crews have worked in the ambulance business far longer than the industry norm.

“I believe the number is even down to less than eight years now, of career survivability before they move on to a different career,” said Mayer.

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Last year, Brent Haynes retired from the Park Rapids base after 25 years as a paramedic. Mayer noted that they also have Jason “Bucky” Johnson, who has put in more than 20 years there; Ben Stumbo, who’s been there over 30 years; and a member of the Walker base who has served about as long.

“We have several that are at or above that industry standard, and the only thing I can attest that is they wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t satisfied or getting the benefit of doing what they’re doing,” said Mayer.

Nevertheless, he said, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased their work loads and affected their job-life balance.

“There’s extra steps that we do to protect our patients and to protect our team members,” said Mayer.

For example, there’s extra PPE, or personal protective equipment, that they use on every call.

“The old days of putting a mask on when it was needed – well, routinely, if the crews are out and about in the public, they have masks on,” he said. “When they go into people’s homes, regardless of the nature of the call, they wear a mask now.”

There are also more steps to cleaning and decontaminating the ambulances between patients, he said. “We use UV light in the back of the ambulance after patient contact,” he said.

Also, team members screen each other for COVID-19 before each shift. “Their partners take their temperature,” said Mayer. “We document all of that stuff, that everybody’s fit for duty and ready to go. So, it’s added a few steps, but the crews have done very, very well with it.”

He said some of the ways the pandemic has “drastically changed” their business has been for the better. But he admitted that any major pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 will have an impact on crew morale.

“It would be pretty naive to think that it wouldn’t,” he said. “There’s extra work to do. There’s extra stress, with worrying whether or not you’re going to catch COVID, or expose your family, potentially, to a pandemic.”

But Mayer thinks they do a very good job of handling it.

Handling the stress

“The crews here have got tools to protect them,” he said, adding that they’re now allowed to change into and out of their uniforms at the base and launder their uniforms at work.

“So, they do have an opportunity to decon prior to going home,” he said. “OK, so a little bit extra work. Obviously, there’s extra stress in worrying about those things. But all in all, I think we’ve met all of those needs as they’ve arisen.”

For another example, Mayer said, “There was a short period of time when we had to kind of restrict or slow down some vacation or PTO requests, but we’re getting back to normal now.

“We’re looking at this as more of a global system. One of the great things at North Memorial is, we are not an island. We have bases in Brainerd and Alexandria, and all the way into the Metro region, and we have resources to move personnel where those needs are, so we can get relief to people who need relief and to allow for vacations and stuff like that.”

As for help coming from outside the company, Mayer said they’ve received PPE and decon equipment from state and federal programs that “trickled down through the EMS programs, specifically Greater Northwest EMS,” and “that has definitely boosted, or helped, with all of the extra stuff that we’re doing.”

When asked what the community can do to help, however, Mayer said, “The general public, I think, is following the guidelines and doing what is necessary, and it’s doing a good job.”

But he added, “By all means, call the ambulance when you need the ambulance. … Don’t wait until you get really sick.”

Mayer recognized that there’s been a fear at large, a fear of using the ambulance or going to the hospital due to the risk of COVID-19. But he stressed, “We take a ton of precautions on the ambulance to make sure that you’re safe when you’re with us. The hospitals are doing the same thing. Nobody wants to cause harm to anybody, and we’re doing everything we can not to.”

Related Topics: CORONAVIRUS
Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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