In a 1962 laboratory mishap, a staff member at the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) was severely injured. His colleagues rushed to his aid and immediately took him to the hospital. It was with this sentiment – of aiding others in distress – that Columbia University EMS took root.
For many years to follow, Columbia University EMS was little more than a dedicated volunteer crew of medically untrained Engineering faculty and staff, assisting other colleagues in medical need around campus, largely unknown by the community at large.
It was during the summer of 1972 that Columbia University EMS gained University-wide recognition, following an incident in which a suspended student shot the dean of Columbia College – Dean Henry Coleman – six times. Columbia's volunteer emergency medical team quickly responded Dean Coleman's aid, and commandeered a borrowed station wagon to transport him to St. Luke's Hospital. Due to the prompt aid, Dean Coleman recovered fully from the incident.
Upon gaining renown for their heroic acts, Columbia University EMS received their first official vehicle volunteers their first ambulance a Ford "Super Van," retrofitted by SEAS staff in 1974. This van, officially termed "01", was custom rigged with emergency equipment and replaced the hodgpodge of borrowed vehicles the corps had been using. With the aid of 01, the volunteer crew responded to approximately 100 calls per year.
By the late 1970's, Emergency Medicine had become its own medical specialty. The certification of an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) had been invented, and the United States had recently begun seeing Emergency Medical Services as an essential component to the safety of the population. It was with this revolution of the medical field that Columbia University EMS would emerge as a full-fledged organization.
Columbia Area Volunteer Ambulance is Formed
In 1980, Columbia students Erik Gaull '85 and Bruce Topper '82 approached the Department of Public Safety in the interest of transforming this group of untrained volunteers into an organized ambulance corps. The Department of Public Safety had already been planning to create a similar organization and was delighted to collaborate with the students of Columbia University. This partnership resulted in the Columbia Area Volunteer Ambulance, or CAVA, a university wide, recognized EMS corps, made up of student volunteers, a mix of first responders and EMTs on call 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Over the following years, CAVA quickly gained the reputation of rapid response times and professional level of care, such that "being CAVA'd" became a common phrase in the Columbia vernacular, indicating that someone had received medical aid from these volunteers. Having earned such a presence in the Columbia consciousness, in 1984, CAVA gained enough money from the grateful Columbia community to purchase their second vehicle, a used Horton 184 ambulance officially named, "02".
With two vehicles in service, CAVA rapidly became an integral part of the Department of Public Safety and the university at large. CAVA’s medical support not only aids in the safety and health of the students but also saves the university tens of thousands of dollars. To this day, Columbia University EMS, the Department of Public Safety, Health Services at Columbia, and the Trustees of Columbia University have a relationship of collaboration, cooperation and trust.
Conflict arose only once, when in 1993, the corps demanded a new ambulance, as 01 was long dead and the over 13-year-old 02 was no longer in functional order, and deemed unsafe by the members of the corps. The university initially denied the funds, and in October of 1993, CAVA canceled service indefinitely. After a mere 10 days of being out of service, the pressure from the student body and class councils caused the university to fold. Recognizing the crucial role CAVA played on campus, administrators agreed to purchase the corps a new ambulance, a McCoy Miller, and in November of 1993, "03" made its debut.
Throughout the years, Columbia University EMS has made a lasting impression on Columbia's campus. In 1997, the corps received a stork emblem from the city, when a crew successfully delivered a baby girl. Six years later, during the tragic events of 9/11, the corps was put on alert. While hoards of ambulances scrambled to serve patients near the twin towers, CAVA fielded all emergency calls in Morningside Heights. During the crisis, 10 students who were not accepted for membership by the corps earlier that semester volunteered their efforts in any capacity needed.
Columbia University EMS Today
In 2002, Columbia University EMS changed its official title from CAVA to Columbia University EMS. In 2003, Columbia University EMS celebrated 40 successful years of emergency care with the purchase of a new ambulance, a Horton 364, called "04” or “Odysseus”. Odysseus witnessed Columbia University EMS’s switch from paper to electronic documentation in 2009 and was joined by a new ambulance in 2010 – "05" or “Achilles”, which replaced the aging 17 year old “03.” After over a decade of serving the Columbia community and greater Morningside neighborhood, Odysseus retired graciously in April of 2015, replaced by “06” or “Penelope.”
Today, Columbia University EMS – aided by Achilles and Penelope – has more than 40 active members and responds to over 1,100 calls a year. Active 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, CUEMS has become an essential part of the university.
To read about CUEMS's history in more detail, look to the Press Page which contains press clippings from CUEMS's history.