CU-EMS seeks to increase accessibility
In an effort to erase the stigma of “being CAVA’d,” Columbia University Emergency Medical Service is working to educate students about its extensive services and the positive resource it wants to be.
CU-EMS members are looking to increase their accessibility to other students and—when they aren’t responding to emergencies—encouraging the community to reach out to them as peers.
An impressive number of students applied to be CU-EMS volunteers this year, and 12 new members were accepted, group leaders said. CU-EMS also saw a huge interest in the training course it will offer over the summer. The group held a number of well-attended information sessions in which it tried to rebrand the organization, and group leaders say they hope interest will continue to grow as much as it has recently.
Despite the fact that less than 20 percent of the calls it receives are for intoxicated students, CU-EMS—previously known as Columbia Area Volunteer Ambulance, or CAVA—is often associated first and foremost with late-night emergencies and parties gone wrong.
“A lot of people see us when we’re most visible on campus, on a Friday or Saturday night,” CU-EMS director Daniel McConnell, CC ’14, said. “That’s not the only thing we do.”
Trained as emergency medical technicians by the state of New York, the CU-EMS volunteers handle everything from flu shot fairs to sports injuries on the field. But CU-EMS captain Liz Day, SEAS ’14, said that most students don’t know about these services.
Eliza Pelrine, BC ’14 and personnel officer for CU-EMS, said the biggest problem with the way students view the medical service is that many will only call for cases related to intoxication, thinking that their minor injuries don’t require attention or that CU-EMS is not responsible for providing that kind of service.
“We’d rather have you take advantage of it and have us help you than for something to get worse if you don’t get help,” Pelrine said.
“They can call us when they’re having chest pains. They can call us when they’re feeling sick,” McConnell said. “It helps us to do our job if people are more educated about what we do here on the campus.”
McConnell, Pelrine, and Day believe that a number of factors contribute to students’ hesitation to call CU-EMS, one being a misguided fear of potential fees.
“I’ve heard that it’s expensive,” Jordan Kalms, CC ’14, said, adding that in the event of an emergency, he would most likely call the police instead.
However, students are not charged extra for the services that CU-EMS provides—funding for the organization is provided by the University and is included in the student life fee.
In addition, board members said that CU-EMS is accessible to students in a way that city services are not.
“We know the campus a lot better than FDNY,” McConnell said. “When a student says ‘Furnald Hall,’ the fire department’s not going to know where Furnald Hall is.”
The “Good Samaritan” policy, which Columbia adopted in 2011 and Barnard adopted this semester, is one way the service tries to alleviate any fears associated with calling. The policy stipulates that if a student needs to call CU-EMS to help a friend in need but is in violation of the University’s drug or alcohol policy, all students involved will not be punished.
But not all students are aware of the good samaritan policy. Michelle Lee, SEAS ’16, said that she felt the organization was “associated with authority” and that students might refrain from calling if they think doing so would result in punishment or public embarrassment.
“People are going to find out,” Lee said. “People are always going to care what people think.”
Part of the reason the group is associated with the Columbia administration is that public safety officers are usually the first to receive emergency calls and get to the scene. They then inform CU-EMS of the details of the situation so that the volunteers know what equipment to bring.
Michaelangelo Borghi, CC ’13, recounted a time when he was with an overly intoxicated friend and a nearby public safety officer took charge and called CU-EMS.
“A lot of times when people get CAVA’d, it’s because of a security guard. They didn’t ask for it,” Borghi said. However, he added that the CU-EMS members were helpful and that his friend “was in a really bad state.”
CU-EMS also makes an effort to be a resource for the larger New York community. As part of an initiative called the Mutual Aid Response System, student volunteers are ready to respond in extreme events when the city’s services have been exhausted. Following Hurricane Sandy, the group donated its ambulance to help transport food to affected New York residents, and 11 years ago it responded to a call for help at the World Trade Center.
As they prepare to take on a new year and welcome new members, the CU-EMS leaders stressed that they are normal students.
“A lot of people think that we’re not necessarily ‘real’ EMTs,” Day said.
“We are EMTs first and students second when we’re on call,” Pelrine said.