For too long, Northern Onondaga Volunteer Ambulance (NOVA) has been something of an enigma for town of Clay residents.
“We haven’t had the funds to market ourselves,” said NOVA Vice President Dale Cuny. “A lot about us isn’t known.”
The ambulance corps’ headquarters on Buckley Road didn’t even have a sign until a couple of weeks ago; when the facility was constructed in 2001, the town’s planning board didn’t permit the construction of a sign. That proved particularly challenging when people in need of medical help sought the building.
“People would put injured or ill people in a car and drive around looking for an ambulance, but they couldn’t find us,” Cuny said. “Our address is only on our mailbox. That was a problem. So we said we needed to get a sign up. We went back to the town, and they approved it this time.”
In order to introduce the public to its staff and educate them about what they do, the facility will hold an open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the headquarters, located at 4425 Buckley Road, Liverpool. The event will include tours of the ambulances, free blood pressure screenings, K-9 and child ID and fingerprinting done by the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department. Demonstrations and displays will be presented by NOVA, Moyers Corners and Clay Fire Department members. The event is free and open to the public.
The ambulance corps covers all of the town of Clay. It’s bordered on the east by the territory covered by the North Area Volunteer Ambulance Corps (NAVAC), on the west by the Greater Baldwinsville Ambulance Corps (GBAC), on the south by Rural Metro and on the north by Mentor Ambulance, which covers southern Oswego County.
In addition to the six ambulances NOVA keeps at its headquarters on Buckley Road, others are posted at Moyers Corners Stations 1 and 3 to decrease response time at outlying areas of the district. Each ambulance includes at least one paramedic when it goes out on a call.
NOVA, which provides EMS services 24 hours a day, also has a full kitchen, two bunk rooms, a shower and a lounge for its medics. The building also has a training room on-site, with state-of-the-art equipment including a training dummy, a 12-lead ECG, intubation kits and more. All state-required training is done at the facility. A building expansion is planned for some time in the near future.
In addition to providing EMS services for the town, the facility also provides CPR training for groups and individuals. The staff also gives training to the staff at the North Medical Center on Taft Road in CPR, cardiac advanced life support and pediatric advanced life support, as well as other training.
Why become a paramedic?
In addition to providing information to the public about what NOVA does, the open house also acts as a recruitment tool.
There are four levels of emergency medical technicians. The level corresponds to the level of training each has undergone.
Basic EMT: The basic life support provider. These professionals can administer oxygen, albuterol, epinephrine and certain other drugs. The care they provide is generally non-invasive; it is limited to bleeding control, positive pressure ventilation with a bag valve mask, oropharyngeal airway, nasopharyngeal airway, supplemental oxygen administration, and splinting (including full spinal immobilization).They cannot start an IV or intubate a patient (to insert a tube into the patient’s airway to help a patient breathe).
Intermediate EMT: Can work a defibrillator to regain a basic heart rhythm; can start IVs; can intubate a patient.
Critical Care Technician: Fully classified as Advanced Life Support (ALS) providers within New York and are trained in advanced airway management, IV fluid administration, cardiac monitoring/defibrillation and medication usage/administration in adult and pediatric patients.
Paramedic: The highest classification. Can perform a variety of medical procedures such as fluid resuscitation, pharmaceutical administration, obtaining IV access, cardiac monitoring (continuous and 12-lead), and other advanced procedures and assessments.
“We used to have an Explorer Post, but for all the work we put in and all the kids we trained, we only had one who followed through,” said paramedic Andy Illingsworth, who used to head up the post. “So mostly, we recruit through word of mouth and through events like these.”
Fortunately, NOVA also has a very high retention rate.
“We’re unique,” Illingsworth said. “We have a very small turnover.”
The reason? The EMTs at NOVA truly love their jobs.
“You’re really making a difference in somebody’s life,” Illingsworth said. “The biggest reason I got into this was a desire to help other people. This is a great way to do it.
Illingsworth has been in emergency medical services for 20 years, 16 of them as a paramedic. In order to become an emergency medical technician, one generally works a while as an EMT, then heads off to paramedic school. The program takes one and a half to two years. Medics must have a certain number of hours in an ambulance; they must also conduct rounds in a hospital, just as a doctor does while in medical school. They also work in cadaver labs to learn more about the human anatomy.
Once they finish that part of their instruction, EMTs-in-training are teamed up with a more experienced paramedic while still in school and shipped out in an ambulance to finish learning the ropes. Ultimately, they’re “blessed to head out on their own,” Illingsworth said.
And some medics don’t stop there.
“This is only a beginning,” Paramedic Sherri McAdam said. “This can be a beginning, or this can be your end goal. Some of us, we don’t want to go anywhere else from here. But if you start younger, this can be a steppingstone to be a doctor or a nurse.”
EMT Lynn Spina is a prime example; she’s going to school to be a respiratory therapist while working at NOVA.
“My whole family is in medicine,” Spina said. “This is a great starting point.”
Those who do stay at NOVA are by no means limited.
“NOVA gives EMS personnel the opportunity to carry out their dreams,” McAdam said.
McAdam, with encouragement from Dick Cherry, NOVA’s training director, started a program called Early EMS Education. The program allows her to go into day care centers and elementary schools and teach young children about what EMS personnel do and acquaint them with EMS procedures and equipment. The idea is that if they are ever in an emergency situation, they will be less afraid because they will know what to do and who is coming into their home.
“I went and did this at one school in Oswego County,” McAdam said. “A few weeks later, I saw one of the kids on a call, and he remembered me. I think that alleviated a lot of his fears.”
Though much of its staff is now paid like McAdam, Spina and Illingsworth, NOVA also encourages volunteers, Cuny said.
“We still encourage volunteers. We’re not just a paid service,” he said. “We haven’t had a new volunteer in seven months. The volunteers do become professional medical personnel. We sponsor their EMT classes, but you don’t have to go for those classes. You get CPR training, you can learn how to drive the ambulance, you can do directions, you can just help out. It’s a very interesting, rewarding profession.”
NOVA: A history
Once, NOVA was all volunteer; the facility was once a part of the Moyers Corners Fire Department, according to Cuny.
“We were formerly part of the Moyers Corners Fire Department, which started way back in the 1940s,” Cuny said. “They used to run an ambulance. The firefighters did it. The call volume got to be so great; they got more EMS than fire calls, and they didn’t have the time. So in 1980, we formed the Medical Rescue Squad as part of the fire department. It was all volunteer, 65 members. All we did was ambulance calls.”
However, as time progressed, donations to the ambulance corps began to drop as costs continued to escalate.
“We didn’t receive any tax dollars, and we got no money from the fire department. Meanwhile, our expenses started to escalate – prices of equipment, the ambulances, our supplies kept going up,” Cuny said. “We had to do something. Because we were a part of the volunteer fire department, it was against the law to bill for our services. The only way we could stay alive was to separate from the fire department so that we could start to bill. We had to do that to stay afloat. Our costs were escalating and our donations were getting smaller. We just couldn’t keep up.”
In 1994, Moyers Corners Ambulance Inc. was formed. The ambulance corps separated from the fire department in July of 1995. Though it was housed in the fire department, it was a separate entity. It remained mostly volunteer; only a few of its staff were paid.
That changed as time went on. As more and more people had to work full-time and give up volunteer positions, NOVA had to pay its members in order to keep staffed.
“Over time, everything changed,” Cuny said. “We started taking over a different portion of the town. Our service operating authority became the whole town. Our call volume increased, so we had to hire more paid staff. We didn’t have enough volunteers to keep going, and not just in the daytime, but in the evening, too. It was becoming cost-prohibitive to be a paramedic. The program is two years long, and that’s a lot for a volunteer. Now, we have around the same number of paid staff as we do volunteers.”
Not long after, the ambulance corps changed its name to the Northern Onondaga Volunteer Ambulance.
“We built NOVA headquarters in 2001,” Cuny said. “In that year, we changed our name. We held a contest among our members looking for a new name and a new logo for our ambulance corps. The most votes went to Northern Onondaga Volunteer Ambulance.”
Now, the corps covers the entire town of Clay. Its call volume has almost quadrupled.
“When we were part of the fire department, we were fielding about 1,600 calls a year,” Cuny said. “Last year, we handled 5,900 calls. We’re on track to do 7,000 this year. It’s drastically increased.”
Still, there are some people who are reluctant to call an ambulance. Illingsworth said that hesitance is dangerous in a true emergency situation.
“A lot of people don’t want to call 911,” Illingsworth said. “They say, ‘I waited so long to call you because I didn’t want to bother you.’ Bother us. That’s what we’re here for. In a heart attack, time is muscle. In a stroke, time can turn it around. People need to understand that 911 is all about getting to your bedside and getting treatment started immediately. If you drive yourself to the ER, you have to park. Then you have to wait to be seen by the triage nurse. Then you have to wait for the doctor. That takes a lot of time. In a true emergency, it’s best to call 911.”
Sometimes, even paramedics can’t get there in time.
“The hardest thing is telling the family that their loved one has died,” said paramedic Sherri McAdam. “They’re either stiff and there’s nothing you can do, or if we lose them while we’re working on them, it’s hard. It’s hard getting the family to come to terms.”
But there are good parts to the job, as well.
“Having somebody say, ‘You helped me. You saved my life,’” McAdam said. “It seems selfish to get paid for that.”
“I didn’t realize what I was getting into when I first joined. I was an EMT to begin with, then the bug bit me and I became a medic,” Cuny said. “I’ve saved several lives. I’ve had people go into cardiac arrest, and I brought them back, then gotten them to the hospital where they did what they needed to do to make sure they lived the rest of their lives. I’ve delivered some babies. That’s the coolest thing, to help assist a life into the world. I don’t know if there’s anything else in the world that can give you that much satisfaction.”
For more information about NOVA, visit their website at novaems.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.