Long Island volunteer nears 40 years in EMS

CPA by day, EMT-CC Gary Stehr gladly answers a third of his agency’s calls

Growing up next to a firehouse siren would be a nuisance for some, but not for Gary Stehr, who’s lived around the corner from one in East Rockaway, New York since he was 13.

"If you were into rescue like I was, you’d hear the siren, then get on your bike and follow the fire engine or ambulance," says the 57-year-old. "Having a scanner helped."

Extra-curricular EMS
Stehr was intrigued enough by EMS to volunteer at Stony Brook University’s ambulance corps as an undergrad in 1977. "I’d switched to an economics major after sliding down the pre-med slippery slope," he says. "I soon discovered careers in economics were hard to come by, so I took an introductory accounting course. I liked it."

Gary Stehr has been volunteering with the East Rockaway, NY fire department since the late '70s.
Gary Stehr has been volunteering with the East Rockaway, NY fire department since the late '70s. (Photo/G. Stehr)

Stony Brook didn’t have an accounting program at the time, so Stehr transferred to Binghamton, where he earned a B.S. in accounting and an MBA. While there, he rode with the Harper’s Ferry Student Volunteer Ambulance Service and Broome Volunteer Emergency Squad. When he got back to Long Island in 1983, he joined East Rockaway’s fire department and upgraded to EMT-CC, a New York certification similar to the national AEMT level.

"I thought about taking the paramedic class," says Stehr, "but I didn’t think it would help my patients much. We’re only 10 minutes from the hospital here. Besides, I can call (Nassau County) medical control and get orders for almost anything the medics can do."

But ALS wasn’t a factor in the call Stehr considers his "most memorable."

Baby without the bathwater
"In 1994, a call comes in for a maternity. We get to the house in the middle of the night, and see the fire chief waiting outside. He says, ‘You better get upstairs — the head is coming out.’ Not what I wanted to hear.

"So we run upstairs and find the patient lying in the bathtub — no water, just the tub. One of the other chiefs — a big, burly guy — had removed the sliding glass door. A couple of us actually fit in the tub with the patient.

"Then everything happened quickly: She delivered, and off we went to Mercy Hospital with mom and her baby boy. Gratifying, but at the same time, terrifying. I’d be happy never to do that again."

That’s not the only kind of call Stehr hopes to avoid.

Man under
The Long Island Rail Road cuts through the streets and backyards of East Rockaway on the way to its Long Beach terminal. Sometimes people end up on the tracks at the same times as trains. Stehr has had four of those calls; one patient survived.

"In the early ‘90s, this guy got hit between the Centre Street and East Rockaway stations," he says. "We had access to the tracks through someone’s yard.

"Once we knew the third rail was off, we started crawling under the train. That’s when we heard a groan — surprising, because most of these patients aren’t in one piece anymore.

"Then we found the guy. One of his legs was shredded and the other was in pretty bad shape, too. We called for the backboard, pulled him out and transported him to the staging area for a medevac. We started a couple of IVs en route and tried to put the MAST pants on him, but his legs were too mangled for that.

"He got flown to NCMC (Nassau County Medical Center). I heard he survived."

Nothing Stehr experienced in his years at East Rockaway prepared him for his biggest challenge as a volunteer, though.

When rescue became recovery
On September 11, 2001, Stehr took the train to Manhattan as he would have on any other weekday.

"It started out as a beautiful day. Just before we got to Manhattan, the conductor said there was a fire at the World Trade Center. That’s all we knew at first. Then they started to close down Penn Station (the LIRR’s Manhattan terminal), so I took a train back home.

"We assembled four or five people at the firehouse to take an ambulance to the city that night. We were stacked behind lots of other emergency vehicles. When we finally got downtown, I couldn’t believe what I saw: burned-out cars partly buried in what looked like gray snow, one-to-two feet high.

"On the pile, FDNY was digging by hand. It was pretty clear this wasn’t going to be a rescue. We joined a human chain passing debris and, on rare occasions, body parts down the line. We only stayed for 24 hours — not long compared to others, but still something that’ll haunt me the rest of my life."

Career plus volunteer
Today, Stehr is controller for the Altman Foundation, a New York City nonprofit, but spends as much time volunteering at East Rockaway. During the past six years he’s answered almost 33 percent of ERFD’s 5,000+ "aided" calls (EMS-related, not including MVAs and water-related or fire-related rescue).

After 39 years as a volunteer, Stehr says it’s harder than ever to find people who are willing to donate even a fraction of the time he has. "When I first joined, members were here for 10, 20, 30 years. Now there’s a lot more turnover. It’s gotten harder to attract a good, solid core that you can count on day in and day out.

"I don’t know if we’re getting worse at selecting people or if they’re just joining EMS for the wrong reasons. There’s a social-club aspect to it that should be secondary.

"Money’s a factor, too. It’s not inexpensive to live on Long Island. People have to work two jobs. Add a couple of kids to that, and volunteers don’t donate as much time as they think they will."

"You can’t go into EMS half-assed; it’s a serious business. You have to be all in. If you don’t have the time to do it properly, maybe it’s better to wait until you can."

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