Like many vital jobs across the country, EMT’s are in short supply.

Always on the front line, the toll that it takes on these brothers and sisters is immense…. and that was before the pandemic.

Now of course it’s off the charts.

In rural Sackets Harbor, New York, it took it’s toll even more so then most.

Every single seasoned paramedic and EMT left the department…. it was all too much.

Too much death and their own health concerns related to COVID-19.

And not enough pay. 

In fact, no pay, as their fire department, like 70% of all fire department personnel and 35% of all ambulance personnel across the country, are completely volunteer.

Usually a given location is covered by a station many many miles away.

So the location gets together volunteers to fill the gap, the need.

That left this town of 1,500 people on the shores of Lake Ontario without a local emergency response service.

They were constantly calling for available ambulances from the nearest town or city.

Said Grayden Brunet, “It can be up to a 20-minute response time. And for someone who is in cardiac arrest, they’re just not going to survive that 20 minutes.”

In early 2020, three teens started to volunteer and learn the ropes, and before long, they were the only ones out of ten left.

“We walked in one day and realized we were the only ones going in.”

In New York State you can become an EMT at 17, and you can start assisting when you’re even younger.

Seasoned veterans Dalton Hardison, Niklas Brazie, and Grayden Brunet. Starting at 16 and 17, they are now 19 and 20 years old.

Their high school, Sackets Harbor Central, allows them to leave the classroom whenever they get a call.

Said Niklas Brazie, “My first call as a certified EMT was a suicide. So that kind of kind of woke me up. I think Dalton’s was a cardiac arrest. It sure sure woke us up pretty quick.”

At the time, they were all too young to drive a rig, so the agency changed the rules so they could get certified at a younger age.

Grayden is the old man at 20 years old, and he’s the EMS captain.

He organizes the crew and manages the budget.

“My whole time being an officer here has been COVID. It’s definitely been a learning experience. A lot of issues have arisen because of the pandemic. Supply shortages and funding and providers catching the virus…it’s kind of being one worse case scenario after another.”

Three teenagers carried an almost unfathomable burden. They were responding to heart attacks, car crashes and suicides. Transporting COVID-19 patients to the nearest city hospital.

In New York City, as in many states, 17-year-olds can become EMTS certified. 16-year-olds can accompany and help. But usually they are not alone, as Brunet, Brazie and Hardison often were.

They say it was never an option for the three of them to stop running the town ambulance. Brunet says they never even thought about it.

“Honestly, if we stopped volunteering here, this agency wouldn’t exist anymore. The community would lose the ambulance and that would be detrimental. So we don’t really have a choice.

And then, thankfully, the even younger new recruits came and helped carry the burden.

Cooper Antonsen, Reese Mono, and Sophia DeVito, 16 and 17 years old.

The first was 16 year old Sophia DeVito. She and both her parents had gotten COVID in March 2020.

She saw what front line workers do to help those in need, and she wanted to give back.

“It’s someone’s mother, it’s someone’s father, it’s a grandmother, it’s a parent, it’s a child, like these are actual people’s lives. And when they call 911. They’re expecting someone to, you know, be able to help them and get them to the right place.”

DeVito convinced her friend, Reese Mono, to join at the same time. Within half a year, another three had joined: Gannon Brunet, Evan Sova, and Cooper Antonsen.

And just like that, the crew went from an exhausted three to a functional eight. Captain Grayden Brunet says the new members, “came just in time, and with so much good energy. And when we were so stressed and stretched thin.”

And what you have now are empathetic, trained professionals.

With practiced efficiency, they pull out the ambulance stretcher. Antonson hovers over it. “So I’m just checking to make sure that we have all of the adequate supplies…that our oxygen is filled, which it is.”

These teenagers take what they’re doing,  every minute of it unpaid, really seriously. They have to, says 17 year old Evan Sova.

“Because we have a really small community. So most of the time going to a call, there’s a good chance you’re gonna know who you’re going to. It’s more personal.”

16 year old Gannon Brunet says they train and practice obsessively. Everyone’s worst fear is being unprepared and having a patient pay for it. “If they call 911, they’re calling people to help and you are the help. It’s just called you to a higher standard that you can’t mess up.”

Several of them said they need that lightness and laughter. It helps them deal with the hard stuff. They have a group chat, and support each other through hard calls and long nights. They’ve had some really crazy ones, like the night before the first day of school this fall, when they responded to two ambulance calls and one structural fire, and made it home at 5:30 am. School started at 7:30 am.

“We went from not even having our licenses to saving people’s lives,” Dalton said.

“Being able to help those people …  I really like that,” Reese said.

“It just creates a bond that’s almost inseparable. You have a second family to come to, there’s always people to talk to. You’re never lonely, because all of us are friends.”

Friends running an emergency ambulance service.

And stepping up for their friends and neighbors.

And standing by their grateful community.


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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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