John Rolfson is used to receiving calls at 4 a.m. It’s not because his friends are drunk-dialing him or he has a girlfriend abroad; Rolfson is an emergency medical technician (EMT). He works for University Volunteer Ambulance Corps (UVAC) and the calls he receives are emergencies.
UVAC is a student-run volunteer organization that began on The University of Maine campus about 36 years ago. The program has 45 UMaine student EMTs, attendants and drivers ranging in majors from pre-med to forestry.
They accommodate the university, Orono and Old Town in emergency medical services (EMS), and receive about 500 emergency calls each school year. Last year alone, UVAC’s members tallied a total of over 18,000 volunteer hours.
“It’s quite the innovative program,” said Rolfson, UVAC’s student chief of service. “It’s the one and only in the state.”
The program is state-licensed with the same ambulances and equipment as other ambulance services in the state of Maine. It transports patients to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. UVAC is part of a mutual aid agreement with Orono and Old Town EMS. The services help one another if they need assistance.
“We have all the supplies, all the drugs — you name it,” Rolfson said. “We have all the medications and abilities as any other paramedic equipped ambulance would in the state.”
Rolfson had no previous experience in EMS or as an EMT before becoming involved with UVAC. Prior skills are not mandatory, but students must hold a valid CPR card.
“I always knew I wanted to do something in this field,” Rolfson said. “But I never really knew what or where or how.”
Now Rolfson is an EMT-Intermediate, one of three state-licensed EMT levels determined by monthly training courses — EMT-Basic, EMT-Intermediate and EMT-Paramedic. Each requires a different skill level, EMT-Paramedic being the most advanced.
Not all of UVAC’s volunteers are licensed EMTs. Some work as ambulance drivers or attendants. These different roles come together to form a three-person crew unique to UVAC.
“We have a crew chief, who is the licensed patient caregiver. We have a driver who takes an ambulance vehicle operations class and then we have the attendant. The attendant is normally a non-licensed caregiver and they work very closely with the EMT to learn,” Rolfson said.
Attendants work with licensed EMTs in the ambulance to better immerse themselves in real-life emergency situations.
“While I was an attendant I took the EMT-Basic class and then as soon as I became licensed it was a breeze because I’d already seen most of it done,” Rolfson said.
Corey Cole, an EMT-Basic who is training to get her EMT-Intermediate license, agrees the ride-along process is valuable practice for attendants.
“It’s a really good chance for people to get experience,” said Cole, a third-year biology student with a pre-med concentration. “My first call was a trauma, and seeing someone do a real trauma assessment, not just in class watching someone do it, but seeing someone do it, it gives people a lot of opportunities to learn. We’re a learning service.”
UVAC’s calls vary from sports injuries to alcohol-related issues. However serious the problem, Cole said she remains calm in order to properly handle the situation.
“I’ve never been one to panic,” Cole said. “If you keep cool, your patient keeps cool. It’s different than what you would think. Not everything is life threatening, unlike TV shows.”
EMTs attend sporting events and concerts, dedicated to taking care of players, performers and potential medical issues in the crowd.
Volunteers must work a minimum of 24 hours a month, which can be divided among UVAC’s three four-hour day shifts — 7 to 11 a.m., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3 to 7 p.m., as well as night shifts, which run from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Night shifts require the on-duty crew to sleep in UVAC’s living quarters in order to expedite their emergency response time.
“We actually have some of the fastest response times in the state,” Cole said.
The living quarters are located in Cutler Health Center downstairs from UVAC headquarters. The quarters are equipped with a shower, bathroom, common area and two bedrooms. The crew enjoys the time they spend together in their living quarters and outside of UVAC.
“Either you learn to love each other or hate each other, and for working environments it’s much better if you get along,” Cole said.
Shelley Sides, UVAC’s chief of service and only paid employee, provides some oversight and supervision to UVAC’s student officers. She sees herself as a professional mentor to the students, helping them fulfill their leadership role in the community.
“It’s just a great opportunity for the students to gain education, to gain experience, and to grow professionally and develop skills that they might not have been able to do elsewhere,” Sides said. “It’s a very committed group. The students here are very committed to EMS and they’re very committed to each other.”
Sides said the group is continually gaining new knowledge in skills, friendship and teamwork.
“There’s always the opportunity to learn from each other. The goal is to learn something new every day.”
The team agrees the program is a learning experience on multiple levels.
“You come to college and you don’t really expect to be the one that’s answering the 911 call,” Rolfson said. “It’s been a big eye opener, a huge learning curve and it’s definitely been worth it.”