GEMS trumpets response time

GEMS’ Executive Director Charlee Tufts led the discussion about its role in the community. —John Ferris Robben

GEMS’ Executive Director Charlee Tufts led the discussion about its role in the community. —John Ferris Robben

It may well be that Greenwich Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) is taken for granted by some — until they need its lift-saving assistance.

So to educate the public about everything GEMS does, key officials recently gave a presentation.

“All of us associated with GEMS are very passionate about it and very proud of the service we’ve been able to deliver for 28 years now,” GEMS Executive Director Charlee Tufts said at the Feb. 4 presentation at the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center. “We are here to provide pre-hospital emergency care to reduce the risk of death and disability from trauma and other ailments.”

That means responding to such emergencies as cardiac episodes and household and vehicle accidents as well as providing CPR and other life-saving training to residents.

Ms. Tufts also came armed with statistics about GEMS, showing that it answers more than 6,000 911 calls a year and transports 4,300 patients. Of those patients, Ms. Tufts said, 60% to 65% require advanced support, above the national average of 45% to 50%. Ms. Tufts reported that GEMS has a response time of five minutes or less 70% to 75% of the time, a particularly noteworthy statistic for circumstances in which every minute without advanced life support is critical. She said response times are collected daily and reported monthly and that GEMS was “extremely proud” that its cardiac arrest save rate of patients discharged with no neurological deficit is consistently 35% to 40%, far above the national average of 8%.

On response time, one tip that was shared was that people calling 911 on a cellular phone are not always connected to Greenwich immediately, potentially slowing a dispatch and arrival. Land lines were suggested for immediate connection, but when no land line is available, cell phones should still be used.

For many in Greenwich, GEMS has been in existence for their entire time in town, but getting the department set up was actually a struggle in 1986, requiring a lot of work before the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) finally gave its approval. One of the members of that BET who did vote in favor of it was John Raben, who, following in the footsteps of his then BET colleague Dick Kriskie, is serving as chairman of the GEMS board of directors. Speaking at the event, he said GEMS was, in many ways, “an institution” in town because of Ms. Tufts’ perseverance in getting it launched and her “managerial expertise over the years.”

“Assumptions were made 28 years ago about the finances of GEMS and I think they have been all proven true,” Mr. Raben said. “But, more importantly, assumptions were made about the beneficial effect on the citizens of Greenwich from a medical standpoint. I think those have been surpassed. We all knew it was going to be a great service, but it’s been even greater than we anticipated.”

Unlike the police and fire departments in Greenwich, GEMS is in a unique situation since it is not a town department but rather exists through a public/private partnership. Much of GEMS’ budget is raised through private donations, but it does receive yearly money from the town for operating expenses. It exists as a not-for-profit entity to allow for the fund raising it needs. Mr. Raben said this has allowed GEMS to exist outside the town’s government structure, to the benefit of both GEMS and the town. He estimated that since 1986, by funding its capital expenditures privately, GEMS has been able to save the town $7 million.

“It’s fortunate that we have the support of Greenwich’s citizens, because the cost of our budget goes up every year,” Mr. Raben said.

As part of the partnership with the town, GEMS is required to send in financial records, call volume and response times to the BET, the town comptroller’s office and the town Board of Health on a quarterly basis. GEMS also must make quarterly reports to the Board of Health and semi-annual reports to the BET. In terms of annual spending, Ms. Tufts stressed that “the things we can control, we control very well.” She said that GEMS’ overtime spending is at 6% to 7%, which she termed “phenomenal” when compared to other 24-hour services, which she said are in the range of 16% to 23%. The fund raising needed for GEMS’ capital budget is handled internally, she said, and outside consultants are not used. There has to be a lot of fund raising to meet such costs as $200,000 for a state-of-the-art new ambulance without equipment included, she said.

Ms. Tufts praised the GEMS board of directors for its fund-raising work, saying it was “absolutely instrumental in our service.” Praise was also given to Greenwich Hospital, which functions as GEMS’ sponsor hospital and also makes an annual donation. Ms. Tufts said there is also an exchange of supplies and medication between GEMS and the hospital as well as assistance with billing information, enhancing the billing that GEMS does in-house.

The audience that GEMS was most hoping to reach could well have been sitting in the front row at the event. The town’s budget is under review for this year, including its annual support for GEMS. The BET is the key group that looks at the budget before it gets a final vote before the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in May, and BET members Leslie Tarkington, Bill Drake and Nancy Weissler were in attendance at the presentation. Ms. Tarkington is a member of the four-person BET Budget Committee that is evaluating the budget and is scheduled to vote on Feb. 27. GEMS is also pushing toward a fourth permanent station to better respond to areas like King Street.

Those BET members and the other people in the audience didn’t just hear about the history of GEMS and get the dry facts about response times and training development. They also got a firsthand story from Charles Zoubek, a town resident who recalled a typical afternoon when he had just finished a workout at the gym and went to get a drink of water before he blacked out after going into sudden cardiac arrest.

“When you have someone with cardiac arrest, each minute before you receive CPR lowers your chance of survival by 10%,” Mr. Zoubek said. “You don’t have to be a math major to see what that means. … When my heart stopped and I went into cardiac arrest, the next five minutes were going to be absolutely critical as to whether I made it. I don’t remember a thing about what happened after I went to the water cooler, but every piece of this worked perfectly for me, and one of the members of the health club had been trained in CPR. I started getting help immediately and GEMS arrived in less than five minutes. Why does GEMS have such a high survival rate? It’s rapid response, and in a town of 50 square miles, to have a response of less than five minutes is a staggering figure. It’s absolutely amazing. And then there’s cutting-edge technology and training that GEMS provides. They’re what make GEMS so special.”

GEMS does have strong support in high places. Both First Selectman Peter Tesei and state Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151) were on hand for the event and spoke in favor of GEMS’ role in the community.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the most essential service that our municipality supports and provides is life safety services,” Mr. Tesei said. “Without life safety services we could not exist. We would be very anxious, I think, to live in a community where we could not depend on property protection and health and safety. GEMS has demonstrated its expertise, and we’re fortunate that the town was astute more than 25 years ago to partner to provide this service.”

Mr. Tesei talked as well about the fiscal responsibilities that officials have in Greenwich and having to keep an eye always on “dollars and cents.” But because GEMS is not a town department, Mr. Tesei said, there is not the same degree of bureaucracy, personnel issues and benefit costs, allowing the use of non-union employees, for example. He urged the members of the BET who were there to spread the message, and he asked the other community members to speak to those they know on the RTM.

“With GEMS the value is paid up front,” Mr. Tesei said. “And what you get for that annual contribution was spoken so well tonight in terms of the metrics and the testimonial of Chuck Zoubek. There are hundreds like Chuck who are out there because of the quality and caliber of this service. In Greenwich we pride ourselves on having the best, and I think with GEMS we do have the best.”


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