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Hardest Jobs: A ride along with an ambulance crew

By Bettina Huseby
Progress columnist


    Pickens County EMT-I Zach Crow and PMDC Captain Tony Simmons (in silhouette) pulling the stretcher to fetch their patient.    

     Paramedics and EMT’s make house calls to sick and injured people and get them safely to the hospital. Their job almost always makes “hard job” top 10 lists. I recently rode along with two of Pickens County’s bravest: EMT-I Zach Crow, 27, and Paramedic Captain Tony Simmons, 37, to learn why.



    It was early morning shift change. Around a big table people were eating and studying. In the background the fire band radio crackled. I was shown the ambulance and all its many compartments. There were backboards, splints and hundreds of supplies; oxygen, gloves, needles and bandaging. There were tubes that blew and tubes that sucked. It was a hospital in a box on wheels.
    “When we get a call, you’ll need to sit here,” Simmons pointed to the captain chair which faces backwards in the rear compartment. My stomach did a little flip-flop. Each fire station has its own set of tones. Each time they sounded, I’d look expectantly at Simmons.
    “That’s not us,” he’d say. So we waited.
    “Can I see the living quarters?” I asked.
    “You can, but you might see a naked fireman.”
    Finally, a call came in for us. We walked to the ambulance and strapped in. Crow turned on the siren and away we went! In no time, it seemed, we stopped. They opened the back doors to remove the stretcher. This was my cue to move up front. Patients have the right to privacy, so I never even saw the fellow, but I could hear him in back trying to breathe. Then he got sick, on the floor. Simmons tended to him while Crow drove to the hospital. He navigated through a glut of leaf-lookers on Hwy. 515. The siren parted cars like the Red Sea. We straddled the center line, not speeding, but wasting no time.
    On two different radio channels they talked. Simmons was in contact with the hospital while Crow gave our status to 911. Then we were backing in to Piedmont Mountainside Hospital. They took the patient inside. Simmons did paperwork and Crow cleaned the ambulance, because the next call could come at any moment.
    But one did not. I was a jinx, but a good one. They had time to eat a full breakfast and shop for snacks at Ingle’s. Food is important. Their mental faculties and strength depend on it. We depend on them.
    Both men work two consecutive EMS jobs on shifts that are 24 hours long. This means they only go home every third day. That’s 10 days a month. So, two-thirds of their lives are lived in fire stations.
    Days are spent studying, housekeeping and maintaining equipment. The station, which is located next to the airport, holds two ambulances, a light-and-air trailer, a fire truck and a rescue truck. These must be clean, fueled and ready.
    There’s a day room, office, a kitchen and two bathrooms. Upstairs is a living room, TV and twin beds. At night they have free time to relax and attempt sleep. Tones will sound to wake them up.
    The ambulance has a Global Positioning System, but there’s an “old school” map book on board too. Part of the medic’s ongoing study is to keep up with road changes and new construction. We can help them find us by having mailboxes with numbers on both sides and house numbers in clear view. Time is of the essence in an emergency.
    Country roads can be rutted and curvy. Tight turnarounds make it hard to get the ambulance in and out of places. For this, all Pickens County ambulances have 4-wheel drive. In case of snow, they use tire chains. And they have a 4-wheeler to get patients out of off-road areas to the ambulance.
    Each station has a territory and with it comes certain patterns of calls. Simmons said about 80 percent of their calls are medical, which leaves 20 percent for traumas like car wrecks and occupational accidents. Because of modern fire-safe buildings, there aren’t as many fires these days. But medical calls are on the increase.
    Can a firefighter opt out of being a medic?
    “Sure,” said Simmons,” and an EMT or paramedic can opt out of firefighting. But most departments now want everyone to take the EMT course.”
    It’s good information to know. Chattahoochee Tech has classes for those who are interested. You have to be 18 years old and a high school graduate. Or you can have a GED. Students can continue to the Intermediate level or become a paramedic to administer drugs for advanced life support.
    I didn’t ask what the pay rate is. Simmons and Crow have families to feed and they work two EMS jobs to do it. I suspect they aren’t in it for the money.
    As I left in early afternoon, their work day was just beginning. The next morning they’d be going home for the first time in two days.
    Crow and his wife have one daughter. Captain Simmons and his wife have three kids. He says it’s hard being apart, but they stay on the telephone a lot. Looking around the station, he said, “It’s not all bad. I have the family I go home to and this is the family I work with.”
    Know someone with a hard job? I’d like to meet ‘em! E-mail me at: [email protected]