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The CU EMS ("CAVA") Ambulance

Thursday, February 26, 2004
Ebecca Aronauer / Columbia Spectator

The classical architecture and closely clipped greens surrounding College Walk give the pathway the ambience of a university catalogue. Even the most hardened of Columbians can't help but celebrate the quad's red brink and appreciate that a winter of dead grass is worth one weekend of Ultimate Frisbee on South Lawn in the spring.The only eyesore, besides the stream of first-years in sweatpants heading to and from the gym, is the white Columbia University Emergency Medical Service truck--the Horton Type III better known as "the CAVA ambulance"--parked on the west side of College Walk. As well-maintained as any Columbia field, the ambulance answers to no architectural style, but only to calls of asthma attacks and ankle twists.

In addition to upsetting the ambience of center campus, the CU EMS, better known as CAVA, also answers about 350 emergency calls a semester. Last summer, CAVA and its 63 members upgraded the truck from a McCoy Miller Type III to a Horton Type III, the BMW of ambulances.

The Horton replaced the smaller McCoy in a ceremony last November. The new Horton has more storage and seating than its predecessor, but is also wider and longer, and has trouble passing through the narrowest side streets.

For hopeful CU EMS "thirds" (the position just below drivers), learning how to drive a Horton presents the same challenges as a slightly smaller ambulance. Even with a compact frame, the old McCoy lacked a back mirror and made wide turns. The Horton's super-size girth only adds to the challenge of learning how to drive an ambulance, such that even the older drivers have had trouble adjusting to the upgrade. "The hardest thing was making the current drivers and crew chiefs accustomed to this ambulance," said CU EMS caption and crew chief Mike Hilton, CC '05.

Like any New York City car, the CU ambulance has its share of dings and scrapes. But so far it hasn't undergone any major accidents, due in part to the careful training process for new drivers. Hopeful thirds tour the Morningside Heights streets and learn how to approach hospitals and university buildings before becoming official CU EMS drivers.

Unlike most New York City cars, the CU ambulance avoids the perils of parallel parking, which would be especially hard without a back mirror. To move quickly in college medical emergencies (read: binge drinking), the CU ambulance can park anywhere, leaving the bumper ding-free. "For parking, we just use fire hydrants and bus stops," Hilton said.

The bigger ambulance has more uses than irking firemen and delaying buses. The larger crew area has more room for "probies," first-semester CU EMS members. The crew cab in the McCoy only had a bench seat on the right side of the ambulance and a rear-facing seat known as the pilot seat. The wider Horton has room for a side seat specifically designed to facilitate Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation.

The dashboard in the ambulance has a cell phone with a Health Services number, a panel that controls sirens and lights, and a CD player. The music is the choice of the crew chief, the highest rank at CAVA. The current crew chief usually enjoys saving lives to the tunes of classic rock or Dave Matthews.

CAVA is subject to New York State ambulance regulations, including the required equipment list as defined by part 800 of the legal code. The list outlines the minimum number of medical supplies a New York state ambulance must have at all times. To follow state regulatiosn, CAVA keeps one childbirth kit with sterile supplies, among other equipment, in a sealed compartment in the ambulance. Even if CAVA were to deliver 12 babies in a day, they would always have an extra birth kit to pass the New York regulation.

But even with the Horton's ample leg room, the 63 members of CU EMS don't kick it in a parked truck on College Walk. For that, they have their own lounge in the basement of Carman.

That space was designed to their specifications in the summer of 2001 to include an office and a living room. The office holds CU EMS's forms, walkie-talkies, schedule, and a locked medical record drawer. As if those navy CAVA polo shirts weren't enough, the office also has a free photocopier and fax machine available for all its members.

An interior lounge features a bunk-bed, a TV, and an N64--everything a college kid needs. "It's a good place to get together," crew chief Dave Applbaum, CC '06, said. Between responding to some 300 calls a semester, CU EMS plays video games and holds monthly movie-pizza nights there. So don't be surprised if the next time you call CAVA, they ask you to wait until they finish their game.