The Colgate Scene
September 2007

Heroes on call

Psychology professor Doug Johnson is deputy chief and an advanced life support provider for SOMAC (Southern Madison County Ambulance Corps), trained to do "basically what would be provided in the first few minutes in an emergency room." [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Student volunteer firefighters at the Hamilton firehouse. Students consult with their professors in advance about the possibility of being called from class in an emergency. Recognizing the uncertain nature of staffing fire and emergency services with volunteers, and its necessity in a small town, Colgate pays staff volunteers who are called away on fire and ambulance emergencies.
Hamilton volunteer firefighters Jim Rollings '10, John Basher, and Jason Murray put away the fire hoses after their weekly training drills.
Jake Kleinman '07, Kyle Spitzfaden '07, student coordinator Lee-Lee Redstone '08, and Matt Putts '07, among the 20 students who work as volunteer emergency medical technicians for the Southern Madison County Ambulance Corps.
Hamilton volunteer firefighter Lou Aliperti '07 (right) chats with FDNY Battalion Chief John Salka. In April, Aliperti worked with the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education to host a lecture by Salka. "Leadership Lessons From The FDNY" attracted firefighters from throughout Madison, Chenango, and Onondaga Counties.

Kyle Spitzfaden '07 finished the last exam of his Colgate career — a take-home final — at 3:00 a.m. and went to bed. It would be a short night.

Spitzfaden's pager beeped at 3:30. He jumped out of bed, pulled on the clothes he'd set out "just in case," ran to his car, and raced the short distance from Parker Apartments to the station house of the Southern Madison County Ambulance Corps (SOMAC) to answer one more emergency call, just as he has for the past four years.

Spitzfaden is one of a dedicated group of students, faculty, and staff who have volunteered with fire departments and ambulance corps in Hamilton and surrounding communities.

"It's one of the most serious volunteer jobs you can do," he said. "If it's just me and a driver and we're fifteen minutes away from the hospital, I can't be panicking or going crazy. I'm the only person who can help. If you can't do that work, then you shouldn't be there."

The student leaders who recruit new volunteers for SOMAC and the Hamilton Fire Department (HFD) take the job seriously. "Fifteen students applied to SOMAC this year, and we took four or five," said Spitzfaden. "You could be the smartest person in the world but if you don't have any field skills or personality, you can't work with a team. And for us, team is everything."

Lou Aliperti '07, a three-year veteran and the student liaison with HFD, has joined with local firefighters to interview student prospects for the fire department. They accepted six applicants last fall; most will serve for four years. "Every now and then we accept someone who doesn't belong, and they leave pretty quickly," said Aliperti. "We expect a lot."

Those expectations begin with training, which for the fire department starts at a minimum of 113 hours of classes on fighting fires, handling hazardous materials, and meeting health and safety standards. Then there are the weekly training sessions at the station for all firefighters on Wednesday nights, and optional classes such as 14 hours on firefighter survival ("many students take that," said Aliperti) and another 24 to 36 hours for firefighter assist and search teams ("Hamilton has one of the best FAST teams in the county").

Danielle Mercado '10, one of the six newest HFD recruits, spent the fall in training. "It takes the majority of your first semester," she said, "meeting twice a week for three-hour lectures each time, and five Saturdays for eight to ten hours each. On the last Saturday they put us in a burning building. The testing certifies us to wear an Air-Pak. And then there's yearly training to keep up."

Kip Manwarren, quality coordinator in the university print shop, is a member of Sherburne's Rapid Intervention Team, "standing by in case a firefighter goes down. You don't know what will be expected until you get to the scene," he said, "but the training takes over. You can never have enough."

Similar levels of training are required by SOMAC, with New York State certifying skill levels from first responder through paramedic. Training begins at 110 hours plus clinical time for a basic emergency medical technician (EMT). Students Morgan Kellogg '08 and Tyler Burd '08 and psychology professor Doug Johnson took an additional 160 hours of classes, on top of clinic and ambulance practicums, and are certified to provide advanced life support, which Johnson explains is "basically what would be provided in the first few minutes in an emergency room."

Underscoring the team approach, Johnson credits all members with SOMAC's success: "Without everyone doing what they do — drivers, basic EMTs, medics — this community would be in a lot of trouble. Piloting an emergency vehicle on slick roads at two o'clock in the morning when the dispatcher says, `Ask SOMAC to make their best time; this patient's not stable,' there's a delicate balance."

Members of the university's faculty and staff can be found on the rosters of their hometown fire departments, ambulance corps, and rescue squads in Hamilton and in nearby villages and towns such as Smyrna, Earlville, Sherburne, Madison, Cuyler, and New Hartford. Nearly all student firefighters and EMTs, meanwhile, volunteer in Hamilton, where the stations on Lebanon Street are within minutes of campus.

A ready resource of students reinforces the ranks of the local emergency service providers, making Hamilton — in that regard — the envy of other small communities, according to HFD Fire Chief Ross Hoham (son of professor emeritus Ron Hoham). Students account for about 25 percent of HFD's 57 active members, and about half of SOMAC's average roster of 50.

Said chief Hoham: "We have a fantastic bunch of dedicated, well-trained local folks. That alone makes us a very good fire department. Expand that with student involvement and not only are we responding in a timely fashion, we are doing it very well."

Hoham drew a comparison to nearby Syracuse, with its professional fire department. "An alarm in Syracuse would bring twenty to thirty firefighters to your house in seven minutes. Our department rivals that response time with volunteers. I'm not saying we're at the same level of competence as a career department, but compared to other volunteer departments, we're unique. That's where having students available during the day really helps."

Another education
For students who accept the long hours of training and the responsibility of being on call, the experience connects them with the community and expands their educations in ways that can sometimes be life changing.

Aliperti, the son of a doctor, is an example: "As a child, I wanted to be a physician. Then, as a teenager, I changed my mind." At Colgate he studied political science on a path toward law school, but an experience on call caused him to change his mind again. "We were using the respiration bag to help a lady who wasn't breathing very well. I was thinking, `This is pretty cool. We're breathing for her.' Later I thought, `I don't really want to be a lawyer.'"

John Basher is a Hamilton native, a 48-year veteran and two-time chief of the HFD, and the third of four generations of Bashers in the department (so far). He also served as Colgate's fire safety officer for 25 years prior to his retirement in June. When Basher learned of Aliperti's change of heart, he suggested the senior contact Ed Dickinson '82. Dickinson's work as a student volunteer with HFD 25 years ago had set him on a career path that led to his current position as associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

This fall, Aliperti has enrolled in a post-baccalaureate, pre-med program at Penn to catch up on the science and math requirements he needs for medical school. "My father thinks I'm crazy," he said through a grin that revealed a shared pride in the decision.

Marc-David Munk '95 said: "SOMAC, more than any other activity at Colgate, was responsible for my eventual career choice." Now a doctor and clinical instructor of emergency medicine, Munk is stationed in Doha, Qatar, where he works as the national EMS service's medical director — part of a partnership between the Qatari health authorities and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In a recent e-mail, he wrote: "I spent this afternoon training paramedics from the Philippines, Tunisia, and Morocco how to treat accident victims; only a few years ago I was learning the same skills from the volunteer paramedics on Lebanon Street in Hamilton."

When Jen Erickson '99 applied to medical school at the University of Wisconsin, she said, "My entire personal statement was based on my SOMAC experience and how it convinced me of my life's goal." Today she is a general surgery resident at Rush University and Cook County Hospital in Chicago, dealing with challenging cases from around the world.

Avi Berstock '95 was both a firefighter with HFD and a medic with SOMAC during his days at Colgate. After graduating he fought forest fires on the West Coast, worked as a professional medic, then went back to school to prepare as a physicians' assistant, the position he now holds in the emergency room of Baltimore's Good Samaritan Hospital.

"The days and nights on the ambulance and fire trucks shaped my life," said Berstock. "They were the best of times and the absolute worst, as well. I learned about myself and life and death going on those calls. I saw things that most students never see, that most people never see. As far as sheer education, it was my foundation for PA school and firefighting."

"There's this brotherhood that exists between firefighters in a place as small as Earlville or as large as Phoenix," said David Baird, who works in instructional technology at Colgate and is second assistant chief of the Earlville Fire Department.

"I know they would go into a burning building to help me out," Aliperti said of his fellow firefighters.

Lindsey Brandolini '05 recalled her first time entering a burning structure, manning a fire hose with Devon Skerritt '00. "It was a big deal for me. When we finished and were rolling up the hose, someone from another department came up to us and said we had done a really good job. I felt like I had proven myself."

In a similar way, EMTs find themselves in unpredictable situations, counting on one another's skills and support. Berstock said of the trauma he witnessed: "At times I had trouble dealing with it. We relied on each other, though, reassuring one another — sometimes with gallows humor — that we were still OK and doing the right thing."

The SOMAC student coordinator, Lee-Lee Redstone '08, wrote of Spitzfaden, "When we have been on calls together where we have lost patients, Kyle has always made sure that I was okay."

David Snyder, who runs a landscaping business in Hamilton, is a 14-year SOMAC veteran and the organization's chief of operations. Snyder said his father, Howard, was a member of the Hamilton Fire Department for 55 years. "I don't like heat and I don't like heights," said David, "so SOMAC is a good way for me to give back to the community." (His wife, Donna, a registered nurse who works in the emergency room of a Utica hospital, is also a basic EMT and has been working shifts for SOMAC since its founding 20 years ago.)

"We try to make it a family atmosphere," said Snyder, who radiates a calm, friendly, competent demeanor that is acknowledged by volunteers from both campus and community. Among other events, SOMAC hosts an Easter dinner at the station for students and volunteers from town, and honors its graduating seniors with a barbecue following Colgate's commencement.

"At the party after graduation, Kyle Spitzfaden's parents were explicit about how SOMAC had helped their son grow in ways that were important to him and to them. I suspect many parents feel the same," said Johnson, who noted that he is "Doug" when he is on call with students, and "Professor Johnson" when they see him on campus. "In an emergency at three o'clock in the morning, Kyle and I can communicate with a look. That's not something you can get to do with your professors that often.

"The students I have the closest relationships with either took a lot of classes or did research with me, or I know them from SOMAC," said Johnson. "In a lot of ways they are similar relationships."

The SOMAC station house fosters connection. With bedrooms, a kitchen, TV room, and wireless connection for students' laptops, it becomes a gathering place for volunteers. "People study there all the time," said Spitzfaden. "A lot of us hang out there. In stressful situations you bond with the people around you."

The connections continue long after graduation, and the stories are legion. When Jen Erickson returned for her fifth Colgate reunion, seven families in town offered her places to stay.

"Marc-David Munk and I were best friends," said David Snyder. Aaron Kelkoff '06 returned to Hamilton this summer to live at the SOMAC station and staff the ambulance as a volunteer while he studies for his medical school entrance exams.

Taking the relationship to a new level, firefighter Brandolini and chief Hoham were married in June. "At my bridal shower we were going around the room identifying ourselves and everyone was saying, `I know Lindsey because my husband's in the fire department,'" said Brandolini. Aliperti was a reader at the wedding.

Serious business
Of course the camaraderie and the connection between campus and community all serve a higher purpose, which is the protection of citizens' lives and homes.

Colgate's director of advancement services, Brendt Simpson, who joined the fire department when he moved to Hamilton five years ago, said, "Every time you leave the fire station, someone is calling you for help. That's why the training and the teamwork are so important. It keeps you focused on the skills you need to deal with any situation."

Said Earlville's Baird, in a convenient complement to Snyder's distaste for heat and heights, "I have no desire to be under the pressure of trying to save someone's life medically, though I'm happy to go into a burning house and try to rescue them that way." Baird said the Earlville volunteers catalogue households in their community as a quick reference in times of emergency.

Students often admit that the excitement of fire and ambulance work was the first attraction: "The adrenaline is phenomenal," said more than one. Yet all quickly come to realize how much the community relies on them.

For faculty and staff volunteers, the decision to join is often more reflective, characterized in remarks from Johnson: "It's very rewarding, but you can imagine there is some stress. The responsibility is a little different from our day jobs. If I give a bad lecture, I feel bad, but no one's dead or permanently impaired. Likewise, if I give a great lecture, I might get an award or great student evaluations, but I haven't made it so someone can have another five years with his grandkids."

Personal connections underscore the weight of the responsibility in a small town. Campus safety officer Deb DuBois, a 25-year volunteer with fire and rescue corps beginning at age 16 in Marlboro, N.Y., and now in her hometown of Smyrna, recently responded to a call for a cardiac arrest in a friend who had been visiting in DuBois's kitchen the day before.

Close to home
This story concludes with a reflection from someone who's experienced the full benefit of Hamilton's volunteers: me.

Our home in Hamilton burned on a November morning 15 years ago. John Basher discovered the fire. Many of the firefighters who risked their lives to save our property (and, for all they knew, our lives) were everyday friends from Hamilton and Colgate. Others were strangers at the time.

Marc-David Munk was a student standing by with SOMAC that day. Avi Berstock left a biochemistry class when fellow student and firefighter Rob Atwater '93 burst into his Olin Hall classroom and announced, "We've got a burner on Hamilton Street!" Avi told me recently, "I can't tell you what happened in biochem that day, but I can remember going up your stairs and hoping they weren't about to collapse under me."

In a talk at the fire department's banquet that year, I concluded with a statement that also holds true for the ambulance corps: "Were it not for your dedication to this job that you do voluntarily, to prepare yourselves through hours of drills and practice and study to respond on a moment's notice to someone else's tragedy — when you have no idea what awaits you at the end of the hose — is in the highest order of public service."

— Leach retired from Colgate in 2005 as vice president for communications and public relations.
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