Rapid Response: Are you monitoring the health of your service?

Two lessons from the New Jersey volunteer ambulance squad that closed its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic


What happened. On Wed. April 1, 2020, Cedar Grove (New Jersey) Ambulance and Rescue Squad posted a Facebook message to community residents reporting that it was “standing down” due to COVID-19 concerns. Unfortunately, this was no April Fool’s Day prank. Stating that a few of its members had signs and symptoms of the illness, the service members felt that they must protect themselves and temporarily discontinue responding to EMS calls. The post said that they also notified the township manager, the town council and the police chief. The town has made arrangements with neighboring services to cover the EMS calls.

The community of Cedar Grove is about 8 miles north of Newark, New Jersey, and has a population of approximately 12,411. The squad’s website states it has over 60 members answering 1,600 calls a year with three ambulances and one heavy-duty rescue truck.

Why it’s significant. This story has generated quite a few comments from both the public and EMS providers. Facebook responses that appeared to be from the community were supportive and seemed understanding, while other EMS providers blasted the squad for their decision.

Cedar Grove Ambulance & Rescue Squad said in a statement on Facebook that it would be suspending service for the first time in its 84-year history. (Photo/courtesy https://cedargroverescue.org/)
Cedar Grove Ambulance & Rescue Squad said in a statement on Facebook that it would be suspending service for the first time in its 84-year history. (Photo/courtesy https://cedargroverescue.org/)

No matter how you look at it, this is an unfortunate situation. As caregivers, none of us want to be in a position where we cannot respond to the calls for help which we have put so much effort training and preparing for. Whether you are a volunteer or a career provider, being sidelined is tough.

Undoubtedly, other emergency service organizations are going to be stressed to their breaking point as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roll across the country. Hopefully, no other services will choose to stop answering calls, but if your service is getting close to that point, consider a few take away lessons from this story.

Top takeaways from the New Jersey ambulance squad standing down

Here are two takeaways from this decision.

1. Communicate with community leaders and neighboring partners

Now is the time for your service director, medical director, hospital, public health and municipal leaders to be meeting and monitoring the “health” of the service. This includes not only the actual physical and mental health of the members, but also arrangements being made to keep them safe.

There are lots of creative ways that services are making accommodations to protect their workers.

Leaders should also be looking at crisis modes of operation to include sharing responses with neighboring services, alternative transport destinations, tiered responses and minimal contact practices. Each of these are complicated solutions and will vary for each service but we cannot simply rely on “how we’ve always done it” during this crisis. When a peak of illness hits an area, it will affect the entire region or state. Everyone will be busy, and we will all have to embrace new ways of caring for patients.

Each service should also have guidelines to consider leaving patients at home with symptom care and follow-up instructions. Be sure to follow local laws about offering transport, but experience is showing that patients are keenly aware that going to a hospital puts them at risk right now. Many are choosing to stay home when they can. Healthcare systems are busy implementing virtual visits for their patients. Tap into these resources. They have triage protocols in place to determine when a patient should be transported and stay-at-home care recommendations for when they don’t need to come in. It is in the best interests of both the ambulance services and the hospitals.

2. Brace for the public relations backlash

This decision in Cedar Grove has made them a lightning rod for commentary from other outraged public safety providers and the comments are being posted on the same sites that the citizens of Cedar Grove are reading. The notice of closure posted by the service indicates that they plan to re-open after the pandemic subsides, but their public image has undoubtedly taken a major hit. What will this do to their relationships with the municipal leaders, other public safety agencies in the area and the general public? Will the town be able to trust them again to provide uninterrupted service? Will the police officers be there for them when they need help on a call with a combative patient? Will the community show up for the next service fundraiser?

You have heard it before, but these are unprecedented times and many of us are struggling to navigate the new challenges that come each day. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others for ideas, help and even just a reminder that we are all in this together and together we will rise to meet the challenge.

Stay safe out there.

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