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$400K grant helps N.C. college add high-tech simulation to EMS training

Funding allows Haywood Community College to purchase new simulation mannequins as EMS training program grows

By Brionna Dallara
The Mountaineer

CLYDE, N.C. — Future paramedics in training at Haywood Community College will be better prepared for real-life emergencies thanks to a grant for an ambulance equipped with high-tech mannequins that can simulate dire circumstances.

The mannequins stationed in these ambulances will be able to imitate symptoms of a stroke and other crises. Their pupils can dilate, they can sweat, and their arms and legs can mimic bleeding wounds. The mannequins can vomit; their lungs can collapse, and they can be used to practice IV placement.

“It will be taking an ambulance and turning the back of it into a mobile simulation, where we will be able to put a high-fidelity mannequin, stock the ambulance and be able to take that to outlying areas,” said Krystal Shuler, emergency medical services program coordinator at HCC. “Our initial-program students will get the feel of working in that confined space and in a moving unit, like they will actually be able to do in the field.”

Just in time

HCC received $400,000 from The High Cost Workforce startup and expansion grant from the State Board of Community Colleges for the updated equipment. The money will also fund updates to equipment now in use by 911 services

The money could not have come at a better time. Ambulance calls in Haywood County have increased 50 percent over the past decade, from 9,800 calls in 2013 to 14,200 calls last year. With a new EMS substation underway along outer Russ Avenue, two basic life support vehicles to be added to the county’s fleet, and five full-time emergency medical technicians to be hired, the need for well-trained emergency medical staff is spiking.

“They’ll get to be training on what they will be practicing within the field, instead of having the equipment differences once they get out there to overcome,” Shuler said.

The biggest benefit of course is that the ability to perform and practice procedures in mock emergencies means saving lives.

They always revive

“The beauty of this equipment is, you can kill it 1,000 times, and it comes back to life,” Shuler said.

EMS student Dominique Alberti has been in the program since August and has first-responder experience as a firefighter. He also obtained his EMT (emergency medical technician) certification while in the military.

While deployed, he realized how much he missed medicine and came back to Haywood with the goal of becoming a flight paramedic. He sees the simulation equipment as a huge asset to the program.

“In the field we only see so much. Not everybody has a life-threatening emergency every day. So I think having more advanced equipment will definitely help us get comfortable with using our skills in real-life scenarios when it’s needed,” Alberti said.

His peer, Nicki Roberts, was previously a volunteer firefighter in Henderson County, and after experiencing the medical side of things joined the paramedic program.

“It shows real-life instances that can and will happen,” Roberts said. “Because you’re going to mess up, there are things that are going to happen. But it’s better to kill one of these mannequins than an actual person.”

Learning on wheels

HCC will be one of the few colleges in the state to perform simulated procedures in an actual ambulance. Shuler said most people set up simulation labs in a hitched trailer.

“What better place to teach somebody how to be a paramedic, than in the place that they’re going to work the rest of their career in?” Shuler said. “We can put the actual equipment in the box, put one of these guys (the mannequins) as their patient, and then learn to move around and get used to being comfortable in that space.”

The EMS programs at HCC currently perform simulation labs in a classroom setting. The mannequins that were typically used aren’t as advanced as the new HAL ‘Simulaids,’ Shuler added.

For one, the simulation mannequins will be able to be controlled via a control pad controlled by the instructor, rather than an instructor verbally describing symptoms and mimicking the patient.

“Currently, when we’re standing in the room, we’re speaking for a mannequin that can’t speak. Students are automatically learning to turn and talk to me, because that’s human nature, right? This teaches them to speak to me through him, my voice is what comes out of him,” Shuler explains. “They’re having to use a lot of imagination, this kind of takes that out and allows them to have the ability to actually see it, and take and put all their senses together.”

True-life practice

Shuler said that when she went to school 20 years ago, there were instances when she wouldn’t actually see what a medical procedure or emergency looked like until she was on the field experiencing it.

“Everybody’s imaginations are a little bit different. So when he actually does it, there’s nothing left to guess at anymore,” she added said.

Everything from surgical airways, IV and blood draws, to stopping the bleeding of a simulated gunshot wound can be performed on the mannequins. Students will bear witness to the physical symptoms of emergencies, whether it will be visually seeing what a seizure looks like or the pupils dilating on the mannequin, indicative of a stroke.

As of early March, HCC has two simulation mannequins in its possession, an adult and child Simulaid. Both can be used with any of the equipment carried on ambulances in Western North Carolina.

EMS program grows

The EMS program at HCC has nearly tripled in size within the last three years, Shuler said.

“It’s really thriving. We have definitely started offering a lot more classes, and we have a lot more students in our classes. So it’s time to start expanding out,” Shuler said. “In 2020, we had one paramedic class, two EMT classes, and now we’re running three to four EMT classes, two advanced classes, medic class, and they’re all full, starting with 15 to 25 students each.”

Need also rising

From the time students begin the paramedic program until the time they graduate, there is at least a year’s time-lapse. So though there might be a set number of students starting the program, all of them won’t hit the job force for over a year.

“The (career) lifespan of someone working in the 911 field is not as long as it used to be. They don’t stay in it as long as they used to,” Shuler said.

However, with the new equipment and hands-on approach, Shuler is hopeful this will shorten the pipeline of finishing the program and entering the workforce.

“With a shortage of paramedics and providers in general in emergency services, that will be a definite leg up for the employers in Western Carolina, because we’re all short-staffed,” Shuler said.

The simulation equipment will not only be utilized by the paramedic program but can be used in continuing education courses as well.

“We literally are doing continuing education forever. For the fire departments, for our EMS staff, the rescue squads, CPR, school teachers, community, whole nine yards, churches, so we get to use it for all kinds of stuff,” Shuler said. “Having this ambulance, we can take one of these guys, put them on a stretcher, we can go to the fire department con-ed and practice the same live training.”

Just last year the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services changed the skill level for select first responders, permitting them to provide more services. The new equipment can be used to enhance their training as well.

“This $400,000 will give us the opportunity to literally rewrite how we would do education in Haywood County ,” Shuler said.

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