INDIANAPOLIS, October 22, 2016 – If your spouse had just suffered a heart attack and you were following the ambulance to the hospital and looked through its rear window and saw… teenagers, what would you do?
In Darien, Connecticut, the only emergency ambulance service is manned by high-schoolers. At its world premiere at the Indianapolis Heartland Film Festival, High School 9-1-1 shows how it’s possible, and how it works.
And it does work.
Tim Warren, Executive Producer and Director of High School 9-1-1 was a member of Darien EMS – Post 53 from 1982-85. In the film he documents the teens on real calls, how they were active saving lives and doing the job of Emergency Medical Technicians effectively, giving us a front-row look at how “kids” can manage training, school, stress, even death.
Established 47 years ago as a Boy Scout Explorer Post, Founder John “Bud” Doble, established a first aid station to teach his kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Doble says,
“At the same time, we learned that soldiers on the battlefield [in the Viet Nam conflict] had a better chance of survival than someone injured in an auto accident in the United States.”
The stars aligned when The American Medical Association along with The U.S. Department of Transportation commissioned a company in Darien to develop the initial Emergency Medical Technician course. The members of Post 53 were used as “guinea pigs” in this new training protocol and ultimately became some of the first certified EMTs in the country.
Too much responsibility, too soon? Maybe, but Doble noted that, “If a teenager is shown how to do something, they’ll do it.” Students really run everything, with adult mentorship and training, in a “guided democracy” whose meetings put many city council meetings to shame for their focus and what Darien’s police chief calls an “astounding level of professionalism.”
“Posties,” as they are called, don’t receive any pay or school credit but are supported by high school faculty and administrators. Teacher, Mr. DiPasquale told the camera, “They’re learning about real life so If they miss a class here or there, who cares?”
The students are on call 24/7, responding to over 1500 emergency calls a year, saving a lot of lives. It’s real life, though, and occasionally they’re unsuccessful. After one call that’s shown in the film, Martin handled the loss of a patient. “We did the best we could to save her life. We just couldn’t do it.”
Fellow EMT Meredith realized,
“You get changed by these kinds of calls. You can see how quickly life can slip through your fingers.”
And with those realizations come maturity, as well. A psychologist who works with the Post explained, “If a teenager is well put together in the first place, they can handle it and actually can grow from the experience.”
A particularly poignant scene begins during an “Appreciation Dinner,” when a man whom some of the students recognize from a call walks with his family to the stage. He thanks the students who saved his life. His wife follows and tears roll down the cheeks of both audiences, at the dinner and in the theater.
Then the beeper goes off; the students climb into the ambulance and head off on another call.
Student Kate Kevorkian explained ‘responsibility’ in the context of Post 53.
“It’s not just being ‘responsible for your homework.’ It’s being responsible for everyone.” The 16-year-old President, Sarah, says, “We can do it. If people are willing to believe in us, we’ll step up.”
Why doesn’t every community do this? Costs and volunteers aside, today’s state and local laws make it extremely difficult for a teen-run ambulance service to get off the ground. Connecticut is one of the few states in the U.S. that allows 16-year-olds to be certified EMTs and Post 53 is the only organization in the country legally allowed to have someone under the age of 18 operate an emergency vehicle. [For skeptics, there has been only one student-driven ambulance accident in all 47 years, and no one was hurt.]
So Warren says, “The goal [of making this film] isn’t to have a Post in every town. The goal is to inspire young people to realize their capabilities, and to motivate adults to mentor them. The key to Darien EMS – Post 53’s success, and its longevity, is that adults give the young members the responsibility to practice what they have been taught and truly run their own emergency ambulance service.
“The program teaches its young adult members life skills, time management, working with others, handling stress. These are skills that are invaluable whether you go into the medical field or not.”
Bud Doble trusted kids. Was he nuts?’ Perhaps. Or perhaps, it’s the adults who don’t trust kids who are nuts.