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'Stay off the Roads' Not an Option for Maine's Emergency Medical Workers

Tom Porter

TOPSHAM, Maine - As Mainers dig out from the latest winter storm and prepare for the next one, public safety officials continue to hammer home one piece of advice of above all:  When the storm hits, stay at home and off the roads.

But for emergency medical personnel, that is not an option.

"My name is Bill Goodrich and my partner is Susan Yurek, and we're here at North East Mobile Health Services in the Topsham division, on the - what? - third winter storm in the last seven days?  I don't even remember what this one is called."

Goodrich is an advanced Emergency Medical Technician with 32-years of experience in the field - 15 of them with North East Mobile, the largest ambulance service in the state, with more than 40,000 calls a year.
Yurek is a qualified paramedic of 13 years.  During the height of Monday's snow storm, they set out on a routine supply pickup. But they could just as easily be called on to answer a 9-1-1 call in the area, or to transfer a hospital patient down to Portland, or even Boston.

And this often means going as fast as possible under dangerous weather conditions. "As fast as we can, and on a day like today, that just takes a little bit longer," says ??

A severe winter storm, says Goodrich, typically adds at least 10 to 15 minutes to a trip - and that's assuming they get the full co-operation of other motorists when they see an ambulance approaching.

"If I were to impart some words of wisdom to other drivers out there, pull to the right and stop," Goodrich says. "It's not rocket science, just pull to the right and stop. It makes our jobs so much easier."

Yurek says the harsh winter weather is challenging for a number of reasons - and not just the difficult driving. "Once we get to the patient's home, usually someone who's sick hasn't shoveled out or anything like that, too, so sometimes we have challenges getting them out of the residence," she says.

Tom Porter: "Do you keep a shovel in the back there?"

Susan Yurek: "We have a shovel, we have sand and salt and we've been known to use it quite often."

Most of the medical equipment in the back of the ambulance is decidedly more high-tech. Yurek sits surrounded by what she describes as a "mini-emergency room," including a $20,000 defibrillator machine.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
A ambulance operated by North East Mobile Health Services in Topsham.

ach season has its challenges, and in these weather conditions, Yurek says emergency calls are often more critical than at other times of year. "People to tend to wait a longer to call 9-1-1 during a storm because they feel bad to get us out," she says, "so they're usually a little sicker by the time we get there."

While Maine's ambulance drivers enjoy a storm-free day or two, staff at the state's major hospitals are busy preparing for the next major weather event. "It's a monumental task to keep some place like Maine Medical Center open and operating smoothly during these huge events," says Josh Frances, director of emergency management at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

It's Frances' job to help ensure the smooth running of northern New England's largest hospital. That includes making sure the center has enough supplies to last through a winter storm, when deliveries will likely be disrupted.

"This past week-and-a-half has been a challenge and a lot of good work has been done, and we're looking forward to some down time to re-group and get our ducks back in a row, and prepare for the next one," he says.

And he may not have long to do that.  Meteorologists are predicting more snow Thursday night into Friday.