Rescue workers provide front line community service

VERGENNES — When Sara McKirryher joined the Vergennes Area Rescue Squad in August of 2000 she was around 20 years old, and she didn’t know exactly what she was getting into.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” the Vergennes resident said in a recent interview. “My mom (Ann Rivers) was on the rescue squad, and she convinced me to take a healthcare CPR course and join (VARS).
“I just wanted to give back to the community, do something of value,” McKirryher said.
So she did the CPR training and showed up for her first night as a VARS volunteer. There were two seasoned EMTs (certified Emergency Medical Technicians) on the job with her that night, and it turned out to be a good thing. While many shifts have two or three calls for service, McKirryher’s first shift had eight.
“It was abnormally busy,” she said, with understatement.
The busy pace seemed to suit McKirryher, who is now 46.
She stuck with the 12-hour shifts, doing six to eight a month. And she stuck with the training, too, first earning her EMR (Emergency Medical Responder) certification, and then her EMT accreditation within two years.
Today, she’s got a full-time job, and cut back to four or five shifts a month. But McKirryher, who is the current president of VARS, is still deeply involved. As an officer, she has a monthly business meeting. And, like other rescue squad members, she goes to one or two training sessions a month.
There’s a lecture to provide structure for each training session, which might give new information or be a refresher of things that squad members already have been trained to do. Then there is the practical training.
“It’s really hands-on,” McKirryher said of the monthly training sessions. “Some of the stuff you do only once in awhile … Some things we don’t use a lot but we train on them so when we have to we can do them, like traction splints, which are used to relieve pain.
“Or a stair chair,” she continued. “Things you may not touch for a couple shifts.”
One aspect of training that McKirryher has seen increase is treatment for those afflicted by drug overdoses. VARS crew members, like other first responders across the county, learn what an opioid drug overdose looks like, and how to treat it, including with Narcan, the drug that is said to bring an overdose patient back to life after they stop breathing. McKirryher said that Narcan is fairly expensive and has a relatively short shelf life, but VARS keeps it on hand.
The rescue squad members also train with local police, who help them learn what to keep an eye out for in terms of drug abuse among patients.
“The drug epidemic has hit us here but not as much as in other counties,” McKirryher said.
VARS services encompass a broad array of activities. Some of those services include CPR classes for schools, businesses and others; child safety, such as car seat checks at its station at 106 Panton Road twice a month on the first Thursday and the third Saturday and bicycle helmets and fittings; and response to natural disasters around the country, such as the VARS response to Hurricanes Rita in Texas and Sandy in New Jersey.
It’s most high profile service — like the rescue squads in Bristol, Middlebury and Brandon — is a 24-hour ambulance service for emergency transports and emergency care of the sick and injured.
And like those other agencies that have rigs, VARS works with volunteer rescue squads, like those in Ferrisburgh, New Haven, Monkton and Bridport/Addison (Town Line First Response). These first response squads provide about 90 percent of the pre-hospital emergency care in Vermont and are staffed by volunteers. Officials agree that there is a critical need for more volunteers in Addison County and all over Vermont. Several squads in Addison County have hired a couple paid staff for some shifts due to shortage of daytime members.
For those who volunteer, a first response unit provides training, organizational support and a chance to serve the community. As the VARS website emphasizes:
“The most important thing we do is save lives!”
McKirryher really appreciates what her partners on the local first response teams do. She said they are often the first on the scene — “Some parts of Addison and Bridport, it takes us a long time to get there,” McKirryher said — and they have the training to help stabilize a patient and take a history so that the EMR or EMT in the ambulance will have a head start when they arrive on scene.
Plus, the first response squads have an added benefit for people who are in pain and may be unsettled.
“It makes the patient feel more comfortable because it’s someone from the community who helps them,” McKirryher said.
VARS is a non-profit organization that supports its operations mostly through three funding sources: 1. it bills patients and their insurance for services, 2. it gets grants from towns it serves, and 3. it holds fundraisers.
McKirryher said VARS, like some other agencies, has a subscription service, where local residents can pay a certain amount per year and then if they need ambulance service it is already paid for.
One thing McKirryher wishes that VARS had is more volunteers.
“We just took on four new members in the last two months, so if we could gain five to seven more we would be good,” she said.
Those on the rescue squad, like those on local first response teams, manage to balance their emergency services with a paying job.
McKirryher, herself, has a full-time job as an accountant in an office working for Green Mountain Power. She said she likes the balance of the work outside in fast-paced situations that the rescue squad provides.
“Both jobs play off of each other,” she said. “In the emergency response world we make decisions on our feet quickly and that carries through in our jobs.”
And then there is the payoff of seeing clients brighten when you, the first response volunteer, show up.
“When any rescue squad shows up, for the clients there is that glimmer of hope  — ‘Oh, you’re here,’” McKirryher said.

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