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How Ferguson EMS is preparing for more riots

EMS leaders are using their experience from the previous unrest to better plan and keep crews safe


When protests broke out across Ferguson, Mo. in response to the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, public safety agencies had no warning that was how the community would react.

“It was a no-notice event, like a tornado,” said Brian Froelke, medical director of Christian Hospital EMS, which responded to multiple calls during the protests.

“This next wave is more like a hurricane,” he said. “It can gain or lose strength, but you know it’s heading your way.”

Indeed, as the nation braces for a grand jury decision on whether to indict white police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager, residents are being asked to hunker down as they would for a major storm with plenty of food, water and medicine in case it’s unsafe to go outside. 

First responders are also preparing for the worst, and Chris Cebollero, Christian Hospital EMS chief, plans to apply some lessons learned from when the riots first broke out

“I’ve never seen civil unrest to the point of Ferguson, Mo.,” Cebollero said. “I didn’t know what to do. I found myself, as a leader that likes to be on the cutting edge, in an area where I needed to learn as I went.”

There’s a guy for that

At one point, responders didn’t feel comfortable being in the firehouses, and they needed a plan on the fly.

After several phone calls and discussions, Cebollero was able to pull ambulances out of the firehouses, and move them to the main campus of Christian Hospital. The difference this time around is that rather than responding to situations as the event unfolds, the plan, if needed, is already ready to go.

“If this chess piece moves, this is the counterpart to that,” Cebollero said about the need to effectively manage resources and staff.

Much of that coordination falls to Froelke as well, who also serves as the East Central Missouri Regional EMS Medical Director, the State EMS Medical Director, and the Missouri Medical Director of the Missouri Disaster Response System.

Let’s just say he can move things around.

His focus, he said, is to work with local agencies to figure out safe areas where they’ll be staged, and to coordinate assets depending on the highest call volumes and potential for speediest responses.

As he was performing duties like pulling ambulances from other regions to fill in holes, and pairing up community paramedics with supervisors – two positions that would normally operate individually but rode together for the safety of the buddy system – he was also providing primary medical oversight and sometimes going against policies.

“Emergency response typically doesn’t transport,” Froelke said. “But if they can pick up the patient and move them to a safe location.”

While recognizing the need for local control, if riots occur he’s now better equipped to tweak certain aspects, and is prepared if the local system becomes overwhelmed. Like Cebollero, he’s got a plan with multiple layers in place.

“There were timeless counts of things that could have been asked for that were a phone call away, but that phone call was never made,” he said.

Moving forward, not only are the protocols in place, but people have been assigned to handle specific tasks if they become necessary.

Cebollero is taking a similar approach.

“Who are the contacts?” he asked. “How is it going to funnel down to the masses?”

One area he and others identified as a need for improvement was communication between different agencies, including police, fire, and tactical teams.

“We found that was one of the challenges we needed to polish,” he said.

Rumors and guns

The grand jury decision is expected to come sometime in mid-to-late November ─ nobody really knows when. Jurors have until January to announce a decision. Gov. Jay Nixon has pre-emptively declared a state of emergency, and has mobilized National Guard troops.

With the announcement looming, Cebollero and his crews have heard multiple rumors about buildings that will be burned down; people that will be targeted.

At first they tracked down the source of the information, and got an earful of misinformation.

“There became a point where I just needed to say, ‘let’s wait and see what happens,’” Cebollero said.

But there has been truth in the newscasts that guns are on the rise, and Froelke and his team are working to raise public awareness about proper handling.

“We felt that some public education regarding gun safety and how to prevent firearm accidents at home might be a way for our EMS to help a little bit down the road,” he said. “We would hate to see a case where someone purchased a fire arm to protect their family only to end up with a tragic accident to one of those same family members they had hoped to protect.”

During the first protests, Cebollero and his crews responded to a lot of minor calls like abrasions and tear gas injuries. They were often dispatched for someone assaulted.

“A lot of times we got to the scene to answer a call, and saw no patient,” he said.

Often people out on the streets didn’t want medical treatment, and many more people stayed away. Call volume dropped by 21 percent during the protests.

“There were people who were not leaving their homes,” he said. By the same token, EMS was clearing responding to cardiac arrest incidents and everything else not related to the riots, and once the grand jury decision comes it will be no different.

“We will ramp up for what we need to ramp up for,” he said. “But we will also continue with business as usual.”

In addition to ensure EMS is caring for the community, Cebollero said he plans to keep his providers safe. 

“The number one goal,” he said, “is to make sure everybody gets home at the end of their shift.”

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