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After thirty years, CU-EMS in transition

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Chelsea Lo / Columbia Spectator

On their 30th anniversary as a university-wide, student-operated medical corps, members of the Columbia University Emergency Medical Services said their recent bid for rooms 102 and 103 in Broadway is only one of many transitions the group has made since its earliest days.

Allison Levin, CC ‘13 and captain of CU-EMS, better known to students as CAVA, a group of volunteer emergency medical technicians who serve Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus and the surrounding area, said the group has outgrown space after space since Dec. 1, 1980, as their membership core and call volume have increased.

This year CAVA fielded over 800 calls, a record number in the organization’s 42 year history that began after a professor was injured during the 1968 student riots.


Levin said that since Columbia gave CAVA official recognition and funding thirty years ago, they have come leaps and bounds ahead of other college EMT groups and even won a number of national awards, recognizing their service.

“There are many jump-pack systems in other collegiate EMS agencies,” Levin said. “Members will carry a bag with medical equipment and run or bike to students. CU-EMS is relatively unique in that it has an ambulance of its own and can transport patients. This is especially rare in an urban collegiate EMS setting.”

Health Services, one of the offices that CU-EMS falls under, recently purchased a new ambulance with a six figure price tag, for the group—a far cry from CAVA’s first “ambulance.”

During the summer of 1972, a suspended student shot Henry S. Coleman, the dean of Columbia College at the time, and CAVA transported him to St. Luke’s in a borrowed station wagon that became the first ambulance of a corps of untrained faculty members from SEAS that later became CAVA.

Since then CAVA headquarters has moved from Mudd to the basement of Butler Library, to 47 Claremont, and finally to its current space in the basement of Carman, where it has been since 2000.

“The space that we used in Carman, I was very happy with because it was so much better than Claremont,” said Rafi Kaiserblueth, GS/JTS ’03, who was an EMT as an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia.

Kaiserblueth said the University moved them into Carman, a larger space, closer to campus, after recognizing their importance.

Levin said that many don’t realize that CAVA does everything the Fire Department does, except for free.

“CAVA is on the same par as FDNY,” Levin said, noting that CAVA often has a lower response time than the Fire Department because members know the campus better.

CAVA’s role in the EMS response during the September 11 attacks, during which CAVA single handedly covered the entire Morningside Heights area as other ambulance services went downtown to assist victims, demonstrated the organization’s importance, Levin said.

Kaiserbleuth said he was on duty the morning of the attacks.

“So many people were glued to the TV, not doing anything, wishing they could do something,” he said. “I’m proud that we were able to help not just the Columbia community but the Morningside Heights area. It was a small bright spot on an otherwise horrible day.”


Alexander Harstrick, CC ‘12 and director-elect of CU-EMS, said that with limited space in their current Carman location, it is impossible to conduct training for an increasingly large membership.

Kaiserblueth said finding a space to train was still difficult ten years ago.

“We would use the student lounge in the basement, but it was student space so if people wanted to use it, we had to leave,” Kaiserblueth said of Carman. “Sometimes we did it outside, but in the winter it just wasn’t possible, it was too cold.”

Currently, CAVA trains in places like Hamilton. But while she said she appreciates the University’s attempts to provide training space, Levin said a central location would be ideal.

“We can’t even backboard someone in our current office,” Levin said of CAVA’s 390-square-foot space in Carman. “There’s no space to practice basic techniques. The other day we were running a mock CPR in Hamilton with its small elevators. I’m trying to train, and we have 10 other student groups around us, looking at us.”

Harstrick said their current space in Carman isn’t ideal for training either.

“We can have as many as 20 people [in training] and 390 square feet isn’t enough,” he said. “Not until our increased call volume did it really matter. Increased calls means increased membership.”

CAVA handled about 600 calls per year when Kaiserblueth was a member and he said he is pleased to see they are expanding.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Kaiserblueth said upon hearing about CAVA’s attempt to move into the larger Broadway space. “It shows the growth of the organization.”


CAVA’s promotion procedures are contingent upon the ability to hold weekly training as well as the certification course. Members follow a four-position hierarchy, advancing from being probationary members—“probies”—to attendants to drivers to crew chiefs. On-duty crews consist of one of each member, who direct less experienced members and help more experienced members. As part of the medical board, crew chiefs decide when to promote members.

“Drivers are promoted to crew chiefs only when they have demonstrated their ability to administer flawless patient care, are knowledgeable about all of the locations we respond to, and when a majority of the existing crew chiefs have seen them on a large number and variety of medical emergencies,” Levin said.

Bree Akesson, CC ’01, worked her way up to executive director during her four years with CAVA. She said she likes to look in on the ambulance when she visits campus.

“Whenever I visit New York City and I am on campus, I always check to see the ambulance parked on the west side of College Walk,” she said. “It reminds me that I was part of something special, and not many students are afforded that kind of an opportunity.”