Student EMTs prepare for disaster

Hayden Irwin/Staff

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Most campus organizations don’t bring a gurney to their meetings.

But for the Berkeley Medical Reserve Corps, an organization of emergency medical technicians — who also happen to be UC Berkeley students — a gurney is just a tool of the trade.

On Wednesday night in the basement of Moffitt Library, the corps members met for their first meeting of the year. A wandering student might not give the gathering a second look — passing it off as one of the many meetings that inaugurate each semester — except, perhaps, to glance at the active members donning full EMT uniforms.

The corps is not a club. It is independent of the campus and is composed of approximately 30 UC Berkeley students. It is unique in that all active members are licensed EMTs: those who are professionally trained to respond to emergency incidents.

In March, the state formally recognized the organization as a legitimate medical reserve corps. Should an emergency such as an earthquake or mass shooting occur, the corps members would be part of the first respondents to help victims at the scene.

Many of the members say they sought EMT certification so they could actively respond to emergencies rather than passively stand by. UC Berkeley fifth-year student Kristi Youn, who is majoring in integrative biology and Spanish, said her EMT training has shown her how she would handle stressful situations.

Ashish Nag, a UC Berkeley junior majoring in economics, said he sought EMT certification as a result of his mounting frustration with the lack of “hands-on medical experience” available to others without medical doctorates.

“I’ve been in more situations than I care to admit when something happens, and there’s a feeling of helplessness,” Nag said. “I never want to feel that way ever again. I don’t want anyone to feel that way, because it sucks to watch someone in pain and to not be able to do anything.”

Under the campus’s existing protocol, mass-emergency situations on campus would divert to the city of Berkeley for aid. Although the members have yet to respond to any campus crisis, they served as emergency personnel at Caltopia and at football games this year and intend to expand their coverage to more campus events.

“The original dream of the people who made the club was for the campus to acknowledge the group as one capable of helping,” said Christopher Briones, a UC Berkeley senior and the corps’s deputy director of medical operations. “Since there’s such a stress in our (local) fire department for repetitive and silly emergencies, we want to fill in that gap.”

Hilary Tang, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in integrative biology, is the director of the corps. She said she developed the idea to establish the organization with UC Berkeley graduate student Andrew Whalen.

According to Stephen Stoll, UCPD manager of services and homeland security, the need for additional emergency support on campus was confirmed after an assessment of campus emergency preparedness. He said the campus lacked a real way of addressing a disaster because it relies on the city of Berkeley for emergency response.

Some students who were registered EMTs approached him later, looking for a way to utilize their skills on a campus setting, in turn creating Bear Emergency Medical Services.

As more students matriculated through the program, they expressed interest in exercising their skills on campus. Stoll applied to the state Disaster Service Workers Volunteer Program and began registering graduated EMT students as state disaster-service workers. Bear Emergency Medical Services was renamed the Berkeley Medical Reserve Corps after receiving certification from the state.

The corps spends its time honing skills through practices such as organized mass-disaster drills. For the members, these trainings are important — but equally so is the sense of community.

“There are a lot of people who invest time and money in maintaining EMT certification just because they like it,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Divya Ambu. “I don’t think I’ve seen that much of a passion for something in any other club I’ve seen on campus.”

Briones said he thinks the corps will only get bigger in the future and will build more relationships with city and county emergency personnel. He added that he’s going to find it hard to detach from the program once he graduates.

“EMTs have a very sick sense of humor,” Briones said. “We get excited by the idea of someone having a heart attack and by the adrenaline rush of being the one who can help and be accountable and not just a bystander.”

Zoe Kleinfeld covers campus life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @zoekleinfeld.