GEMS’ impact celebrated at silver anniversary

Looking back at 25 years of overcoming challenges both financial and medical and creating an organization with some of the best response times in the country, Greenwich Emergency Medical Services’ executive director kept things simple.

“What a ride,” she told the Post with a smile on her face.

GEMS is celebrating its silver anniversary this year and on June 23 it did it with a look back at the past at a reception at Indian Harbor Yacht Club. There the people who have helped make GEMS possible, not only by approving the decision to create it 25 years ago but by working to make it into an elite medical response unit, had a chance to reflect on the journey and the challenges and celebrate successes.

And no one was better suited to do this than Ms. Tufts, who has been with the organization since its inception and has watched it grow and thrive, despite initial doubts from the town that an emergency medical unit in town was worth investing in. Today GEMS not only exists with a combination of town and private money, it has response times that are the envy of EMTs around the country.

“There have been so many dedicated people over the years,” Ms. Tufts said. “It started with the Board of Health back in 1984 and we were able to get a board of directors and get the best of the best staff and I’m very proud to say we’ve continued to have the best. It’s been a joy because I’ve been allowed to grow the organization as far as we’ve wanted to and so many people with clever ideas and inspirations have been a part of that. I’m very proud of this organization. We’ve accomplished our goals.”

Ms. Tufts pointed to GEMS’ cardiac arrest save rate is 40%, putting it best in the nation. She said not only have they been able to invest in technology, but have been able to hire the kind of staff that is capable of responding quickly and effectively. Advanced life support, according to Ms. Tufts, not only saves lives, it shortens the amount of time people need to spend in hospitals recovering.

“When I see GEMS responding today, I know that patient is going to get the best,” Ms. Tufts said. “I still get chills.”

This is a change back from the pre-GEMS days when emergency response was handled by the Greenwich Fire Department and the Greenwich Police Department and ambulances were left there and at a private home in the backcountry that were tasked solely with getting people to the hospital. It had been all volunteer and it also meant changing to a mix of career and volunteer employees. Ms. Tufts said people also didn’t yet fully understand what advanced life support was and how much it could benefit people.

“They wanted us to ‘scoop and run’ and just bring people in an ambulance to the hospital,” Ms. Tufts said. “They didn’t understand that from the moment we touched a patient we could begin the kind of care they would get in the emergency room.”

At the time there was a lot of reluctance to make the change to an independent, dedicated service like GEMS, particularly on the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET). But there were also some key supporters on the finance board and in the end they overcame the doubters for that first key show of faith in the idea. Three of the supporters on the BET, Frank Mazza, Richard Kriskey and John Raben, attended the party happy their belief that GEMS would succeed had been validated.

“It’s gratifying to see that it exceeded our expectations,” Mr. Raben told the Post. “GEMS has clearly established itself as one of the premiere EMS organizations in the country. The cardiac survival rate and the response rate is significantly better than the national average. There were so many doubters who didn’t want to give up handling this service and didn’t feel GEMS could provide professionalism and others who didn’t think it would work financially. Frankly all of those concerns have gone by the boards. GEMS has been a very responsible fiscal steward and the citizens of Greenwich have been well served by it.”

Today Mr. Kriskey is chairman of GEMS’ Board of Directors and is tasked with helping get the critical financial support from the town and its residents to keep things going at the high level they’re at now. He said a challenge is many people think GEMS is a town department instead of the independent organization it is. Mr. Kriskey said it will require more work to change that perception and is a goal for the future.

But he also wanted to look back with pride.

“Twenty-five years is a long time and what we have done for the town is absolutely fantastic,” Mr. Kriskey said. “I’m very pleased with what we’ve done and now we’re starting on the second 25. From day one up to this point has been astronomical and where we are now with all of the ability we have with our ambulances making Greenwich a heart-safe community with a rolling emergency room is very important.”

Ms. Tufts looked back on those early days and said that while they were a challenge, it was worth it to build the kind of organization the town now has.

“It built character, that’s for sure,” Ms. Tufts recalled. “I never doubted our goals. I knew what we were doing was the right thing to do for the patient. It was a big change and change can be difficult. It required a lot of education but the powers that be in Greenwich became very educated and they understand the value not only of advanced life support but rapid response.”

First Selectman Peter Tesei was on hand for the event and said that GEMS provides one of the most critical services in town since it literally can give people a second chance at life through emergency response. Mr. Tesei credited the members of GEMS with bringing the “most high level of medical care to the patient” at the scene and said that to be in the town for 25 years and still be growing made it an important anniversary to be marked.

“They didn’t have it easy,” Mr. Tesei said. “They had to overcome a lot of skepticism and a lot of political wrangling. At the end of the day, it’s a service that’s irrefutable in its quality and its record. We should not sacrifice it for everything. It’s essential… I don’t think anyone would want to debate having the best emergency medical response in the country. I stand behind them and I was very pleased to push for the 24/7 coverage on King Street. Frankly whatever they need to continue to provide that life saving service we should do. They’re exemplary and anyone who says otherwise just needs to look at the facts.”

Saying that he “sleeps better knowing GEMS is there” Mr. Tesei urged the public to continue to help support the organization because they provide medical care to anyone in need.

One man who can attest to GEMS’ ability is town resident Charles Zoubek, who fell into cardiac arrest in 2009 and credited the quick response from GEMS with saving his life. He was on hand for the celebration and spoke to the Post.

“If it hadn’t been for GEMS and the Greenwich Police and Greenwich Hospital, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Mr. Zoubek said. “It was absolutely amazing that GEMS was there in three minutes. For every minute you’re waiting for advanced life support you lose 10% of your recovery possibilities and I’ve had no after effects at all because they were so quick to respond.”

Mr. Zoubek hasn’t only shown GEMS his support by joining its board, he’s taken the emergency responder course to be trained in case he ever saw someone in need of the same aid that saved his life.

Despite taking a good long look at it’s past to celebrate its silver anniversary, Ms. Tufts said GEMS is focused on the future. That includes securing permanent stations and garaging for GEMS and will require support from donors in town.

“I hope people understand the worth of the organization and the need for us to be in permanent quarters with our ambulances garaged. Ambulances now cost $200,000 and we could increase the life significantly if we could garage them.”


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