Darien, Connecticut is a quaint little town that you could easily drive past on I-95 without noticing. And while it seems like a quiet place where nothing notable happens … every siren that goes off in the middle of the night disturbing the peaceful, tree-lined streets tells a different story. Every first responder in the town’s three fire departments and emergency medical services is a volunteer.
All medical emergencies, from a fiery motor vehicle rollover on I-95 to a woman going into labor at home, brings the Post 53 ambulances wailing down the streets. And the EMTs who will treat you are all in high school.
I grew up in this very town, and when I was in high school, it was completely normal for my classmates’ radios to go off in class, causing them to immediately run out of the room. The school even had a specific parking spot for the ambulances, so the students could instantly go out to save someone’s life. Teachers understood, other students understood (and were maybe even jealous), and it was just how life went in our town.
It wasn’t until I felt a few years removed from the situation, having graduated from Darien High School five years ago, that I could look back and think that these were just kids! Sure, in high school you feel like an adult perfectly capable of making big life decisions. But I’m still struggling to be an adult now, so how could I have handled that responsibility back then?
Post 53 was brought back to my attention when I saw a trailer on Facebook for a documentary that was filmed about the organization, High School 9-1-1.
The documentary was filmed during the 2007-2008 school year, with filmmakers sleeping at the Post 53 headquarters and following them on calls at any hour of the night.
The director of the film, Tim Warren, was a “Postie” himself, from 1982 to 1985. He was also the Director of Photography for the film, directing and shooting at the same time, as well as financing the film entirely himself “in order to bring the message of Darien EMS-Post 53 to the world.” The year of filming resulted in 1,200 hours of footage, which took years of editing to get down to the final 86-minute cut.
Watching the trailer for the documentary gave me an inside look at the exciting life of Posties, and I started to see it from a different perspective. Babble caught up with some of the Posties to learn more about their unique experiences.
Post 53 was originally started in 1970 by John E. “Bud” Doble to teach teenagers about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse by giving them up-close experience in emergency medical treatment. Starting as a Boy Scout project out of Doble’s basement with a converted telephone truck as an ambulance, it has grown to three full-service ambulances and two “flycars” — all donated by citizens and businesses of Darien. The 24-hour ambulance service responds to over 1,000 medical emergencies a year.
I know the question on everyone’s minds is, How can these high schoolers be qualified to provide emergency medical services?
The short answer: lots and lots of training.
Freshman are voted in to the organization and begin their Rider training to learn about all of the equipment in the ambulances and how to assist an EMT. Meredith Koch was a senior at the time the documentary was filmed, and was VP of Training at Post 53. And while you might have doubts about how these teenagers can be qualified to handle medical emergencies, she told me that their training is extensive.
“During sophomore year of high school, they take a 160 hour EMT class which includes multiple written and practical assessments. The course follows a nationally recognized curriculum and is taught by EMS instructors from both Post 53 and Stamford EMS. The program culminates in taking the Connecticut State Practical Exams and National Written Exam.
As the course progresses, members get promoted from Rider to Xtra EMT, where they become responsible for assisting in patient care such as taking vitals, applying basic dressings, and being an extra set of hands. So by the time they finish the EMT course, pass their state exams, and get certified, they have experience with patient care.
New EMTs are placed on duty with experienced EMTs that serve as a mentor and provide critical feedback during the beginning stages of the new EMTs’ careers. So our EMTs are extremely well prepared to treat patients and tackle any situation they encounter.”
And these Posties don’t just have to pass the state’s standards. Martin Hannon, a junior and EMT driver during the film, told me, “The minimum grade average to pass the class was an 80%, meanwhile the state’s pass level was a 70%.”
Ines Castro, a sophomore and EMT-in-training during the film, told me that the fact that Post 53 requires a 10% higher grade to pass showed their commitment to excellence despite their young age. “Post 53’s high standards ensured that we were prepared for the subsequent state exam but also served as evidence that we were holding ourselves accountable to prove our ability at, or beyond, the adult level.”
Once their training was complete, they could be thrown into any situation within the town. And in this small town, you had a good chance of helping someone you knew. Christopher Calahan was a senior at the time of the documentary, and VP of Operations at Post 53, and told me about some of the worst calls he had to go on.
“Any and all calls in the town were fair game. We had a 5-mile stretch of I-95, two nursing homes, and a town of 20,000 people to look after. There were seizures, heart attacks, horrific car accidents, horse accidents, bicycle accidents, kids, classmates, parents, grandparents, women in labor, and overdoses, just to name a few. It was a small town, and so there was always the chance that we would be called to the scene of someone we knew. Many calls have stuck with me vividly, but a few in particular involved accidents with kids and teens, as well as my first cardiac arrest. I have one memory of a car fire that shut down all of I-95 and driving down the empty highway from the scene was very surreal.”
Castro also told me about the one call she’ll never forget. While these high schoolers were responsible for saving people’s lives, they also had the extremely important job of comforting the family members and other people who were on the scene.
“One of the particular calls that has stuck with me over the years has been a call where I was responsible for talking to the wife of a man who had gone into cardiac arrest. This call shifted the way I understood and respected every crew member’s responsibility on the call because as the driver, your focus needs to be on some of the scene’s periphery (but equally important) needs, such as communicating with [immediate] friends or family members — a shift away from the acute emergency that is CPR.
I wrote about this experience in one of my college application essays because the couple was so elderly that the stark comparison in age between the surviving wife and myself stands out in my mind as a moment that represents the Post experience well. I, a 17-year-old, was confronted with the task of explaining to a 98-year-old woman that her life-long partner’s heart and respirations were being controlled by our emergency team. It’s not an easy task but in the moment, you don’t doubt yourself and you certainly don’t doubt anybody on the team. It is only in retrospect that I appreciate the awe of the experience.”
After long nights spent sleeping at Post 53 with calls coming in at any time, these kids would then have to get up and go to school.
“It was definitely a challenge to balance school and Post, mostly due to a lack of sleep sometimes,” Calahan said. “I think doing Post forced me to manage my time effectively, but after a sleepless night, paying attention in class was fairly difficult. I think that Post probably hurt my grades but I still ended up at a college that was perfect for me and I wouldn’t go back to change a thing.”
The Posties couldn’t say enough about the positive impact that the experience had on them. Many students, though not all, go on to pursue medical fields. Whether Post 53 jumpstarted their medical career or not, they told me about how the experience changed them forever.
Calahan shared the values that the organization taught him:
“I think Post ingrained in me from a young age a love for teaching, and a belief that anyone can do something if you believe in them enough and support them in the right ways. I think Post taught us to work very calmly in high pressure situations, and helped us navigate the often difficult line of when to be serious and when to let go. Trust, integrity, love, pride, professionalism, responsibility, dependability, and confidence are the eight guiding principles of the organization. If I can continue to embody even half of these on a daily basis, Post will have helped me become an individual that I respect and aspire to become.”
The High School 9-1-1 documentary was screened for the first time at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis this past weekend, and I can’t wait for it to come home to Darien soon.
In hearing about the amazing experiences these kids had being being a part of Post 53, it only gave me more respect for this fixture in the Darien community. I couldn’t imagine doing the same thing when I was in high school, and I really don’t know how they did it. But I do know that the entire town puts our lives in their hands, and trusts them completely.
To learn more about ‘High School 9-1-1,’ visit Boomerang Productions.