First Responders: Facing Dangers to Save Lives

Starflight crew and EMS loading an accident patient aboard the helicopter.


Starflight crew and EMS loading an accident patient aboard the helicopter.
Starflight crew and EMS loading an accident patient aboard the helicopter.

“Your safety is in good hands,” promised Chester Harvey, Jamestown Fire Department’s Deputy Chief, clearly optimistic about the new year. After responding more than 3,000 emergency calls in 2012 for house fires, car fires and brush fires, hazardous spills, dumpster fires and heart attacks, Jamestown’s 55 fire fighters and staff can report inspiring saves, only a few injuries and most importantly, no lives lost to fires for all of 2012.

“We help people on the worst day of their lives,” said Don Woodfield, a Battalion Chief with the Jamestown Fire Department. “Priority number one is saving lives when everything has gone disastrously wrong…Fire fighting is not what you do, it’s who you are.” Woodfield holds the New York State designation, SFI, State Fire Instructor, operating under the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

For firefighters, saving that life is their greatest reward, says Woodfield. In fact, about 100 firefighters lose their own lives across the nation every year in their quest to do just that. In Chautauqua County, seven out of every 10 firefighters take that risk year after year for no pay at all. They are volunteers. In Jamestown, the fire department was converted to a paid, career force on March 1, 1911, after nearly the entire center of the city burned down in a fire that raged from business to business and home to home for three days.

Every 911 call to the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center in Mayville, New York, can lead to immediate dispatch at any one of the forty volunteer fire/EMS departments, two full-time fire departments, seven full-time police departments and one part-time police department. Throughout Chautauqua County fire calls alone account for about 18,000 calls to 911 every year, though many of them are for emergencies of other kinds.

“Alstar’s first responders took action on more than 16,000 emergency calls in 2012,” said Ron Hasson, Communication and Community Outreach Manager for the countywide team of more than 100 emergency workers and their support staff. “On peak hours we may have as many as 10 ambulances on the road at the same time,” Hasson said. “And then there are the helicopters,” he added. “In a single recent two-motorcycle crash we picked up two critically injured teens with two Starflight choppers.”

Deputy Fire Chief Harvey’s optimism is bolstered by the integration of emergency services in Chautauqua County. “There’s hardly a fireman today who isn’t also an Emergency Medical Technician, EMT,” he said. “Sometimes, a fire vehicle is closer to the site of a medical emergency than an ambulance, so our people can have a patient stabilized for transport and more advanced care by the time an ambulance arrives.”

On occasion, a fire and a medical emergency occur at the same place. “Not long ago,” Hasson said, “our Alstar EMTs responded to the home of a patient on oxygen who
ignored the doctor’s warning not to smoke. The oxygen fed the fire so intensely we had to transport not only the patient with facial burns but two other people from the same home.”

Training is the key to effective emergency response. Firefighters’ training now includes New York State certification as an EMT, completion of the New York State Fire Academy’s 11-week course in Montour Falls and a minimum of 100 additional hours of training every year thereafter. On the medical side, Starflight (W.C.A. Services Corp.) helicopter Chief Flight Nurse, Debbie Weaver, is an RN, certified in pre-hospital, emergency and paramedical care.

All of the Alstar EMTs maintain updated skill-training and continue to seek additional credentials in emergency services. Experience, however, is one of the EMT’s greatest teaching tools. For instance, Mike Winne, Alstar Medic Supervisor, a 32-year veteran EMT, has delivered two babies in ambulances, both stuck in blizzards, one while being dug out of a snowbank buried driveway.

The coordination between emergency services in Chautauqua County extends beyond fire, EMT, ambulance and helicopter transport. The Red Cross, with the Southwestern New York Chapter Headquarters (serving Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties) located in Jamestown, is a “second responder” service, coming in after the immediate emergency and first responders to aid the victims of fire, flood and wind.

A recent, late night house fire in a rural, mid-county community was so severe that within an hour after the blaze was extinguished, the remnant of the home was declared condemned; nothing could be salvaged by the now homeless family. Because the winter’s first big snow hit during that fire, the Fire Captain and his crew immediately helped the family relocate safely to a neighbor’s home. “I couldn’t see risking Red Cross volunteers’ lives to come out that night, so we got the job started for them.” The Fire Chief’s quick action allowed a safer and more prepared Red Cross deployment the morning after.

Integrated county services in an emergency sometimes involve the entire constellation of responders. At a neighborhood garage sale recently, a street-side buyer had moved a prized purchase, a heavy trunk, and paid the price for his over-exertion by having a heart attack right on the spot.

The 911 call drew in the closest fire crews, both paid and volunteers, and soon after, the Alstar EMTs and Starflight helicopter. “We were sure he was nearly dead already,” one of the EMTs said later, “but we kept him alive and got him to the hospital. Imagine how good we felt afterward when we actually got a thank you note from him!” Credit went to the combined work of community members, EMTs, career and volunteer fire fighters, hospital workers and a Starflight helicopter all together for saving that life. Emergency services are often accomplished by a team of good teams.

Chester Harvey, Jamestown Fire Department’s Deputy Chief, reflected the admiration expressed by all of the Chautauqua County Emergency Services leaders; “We do our best. We are very proud of all of the men and women who work with us. The community’s safety is in good hands.”

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Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.