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Syracuse University Ambulance Marks 50 Years of Service to Campus Community and Imparting Lifelong Lessons to Its Members
In the fall of 1973, a medical crisis unit staffed by students was established at Syracuse University to provide first aid at campus events, particularly in Archbold Stadium.
The new unit was supported by University administrators, including Dr. Vincent Lamparella, then director of health services; Peter Baigent, vice president for student affairs and Dr. Bruce Baker, a local orthopedic surgeon who worked with the athletics department. The 10 charter members of the organization received 20 hours of in-house training and operated with rudimentary medical equipment, including a used ambulance.
“The medical crisis unit was thought of as just a bunch of kids playing ambulance up on the Hill,” says Steve Busa ’83, an architect and EMT in the Skaneateles community who served in leadership roles with the medical crisis unit from 1976-83.
The late 1970s were years of uncertainty—the unit almost folded in 1977 because of the condition of the ambulance. Help came through from the Student Association and Health Services. By the end of that year, the unit was fully operational and began providing 24/7 coverage for the campus community.
The unit officially became known as Syracuse University Ambulance (SUA) in 1978. The rebranding was a major milestone, with increased emphasis on recruitment, EMT training and new vehicles. Its membership—and reach—grew steadily over the years. When the Carrier Dome opened in 1980, SUA was at the forefront of providing critical coverage for events that brought thousands of fans to campus.
Calls for Service
Today, SUA has nearly 100 members, first-year through graduate students, responding to emergencies ranging from minor to life threatening. The organization operates under the umbrella of Health Care at the Barnes Center at The Arch and has been led by Paul Smyth, emergency services manager and a veteran paramedic, for the past decade. Smyth is assisted by five student field supervisors. SUA exceeded 1,200 calls for emergency service this academic year.
Membership in SUA requires a significant commitment. It is open to all regardless of prior experience, and those interested go through an application and interview process. If selected, they undergo in-house training and testing, followed by the 150-hour New York State emergency medical technician class.
“Our members devote an extraordinary amount of time and effort to serving the campus community,” says Smyth. “I am proud of the dedication that they all have to living out SUA’s mission and values, and to providing a critical service here at Syracuse University.”
SUA is strongly supported by Chancellor Kent Syverud and Dr. Ruth Chen, professor of practice in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Chancellor Syverud offered remarks at SUA’s recent anniversary banquet, which drew over 200 current members and alumni.
Chancellor Syverud spoke of his pleasant surprise in coming to Syracuse and finding scores of students running their own ambulance service, providing virtual 911 service to the campus and vicinity and at sports events and concerts.
“And the students ran it all, with their own leadership and planning. And they come from every school and college, every race and background and creed. And they like each other and they talk to each other, including all night shifts when they are helping others,” he said. “… Syracuse University is better because of SU Ambulance.”
SUA operates with two New York State basic life support ambulances as well as a University supervisor’s vehicle. SUA staffs all major events on campus, including athletic events in the JMA Wireless Dome. The organization maintains a medical support unit used for large campus events and serves as mutual aid to city/county agencies for multiple casualty incidents. SUA also provides critical cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and Stop the Bleed trainings for members of the community.
Through the years, the medical crisis unit and later SUA have answered calls across a spectrum, ranging from sports injuries to diabetic emergencies to full cardiac arrests. They have included the April 9, 1978, University Avenue fire that claimed the lives of four Syracuse firefighters and a 1982 incident in the Dome in which a Syracuse cheerleader was badly injured. In 1984, SUA members delivered the baby of a University staff member.
By 1993, SUA members were required to be New York State-certified emergency medical technicians. The next year, the organization, which had been student run since its inception, moved under the umbrella of then Health Services. Also in 1994, SUA was named a New York State Emergency Medical Services Agency of the Year.
Crucially, SUA has served as an important training ground for students, providing life lessons and experience that has served them in their careers and in service to their communities.
Alumnus Howard Riesel ’76 was a member of the medical crisis unit from September 1974 through May 1976. “My time spent riding the ambulance at Syracuse resulted in changing career paths from television production to the field of mental health and substance abuse treatment,” he shared on Facebook.
Alumna Dr. Kate Bunch ’15, a resident neurosurgeon at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, joined SUA in spring 2012. She became a field supervisor, personnel supervisor, training supervisor, field training officer and secretary, earned her EMT-B and dispatcher certifications and was certified as a basic life support/CPR instructor.
Her time at SUA included her first time performing CPR and her first mass casualty incident—a bus accident on Interstate 81. “What made these calls a bit more memorable was that they were introductions to incidents I see as a physician and surgeon now,” she says.
Bunch says that her experience at SUA gave her valuable life lessons. “What SUA taught me was far less about medicine (although I certainly learned some) and was far more about leadership, communication and patient advocacy,” she says.
Dr. Anthony Schramm ’16 joined SUA in his first year in spring 2013. He was one of four field supervisors during his senior year.
Schramm’s first call as a newly appointed crew chief was for a fall from an unknown height. “Upon arrival, we quickly realized it was more critical than we expected. Being able to care for your peers during some of the worst days of their lives is something I did not take for granted; it was truly special,” he says.
Schramm is now chief resident at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center in the Department of Anesthesiology. “To excel at SUA one must learn how to think critically, communicate effectively, triage and anticipate next steps. These skills are invaluable to a young professional beyond our years at Syracuse University,” Schramm says.
SUA alumnus Chris Jennison ’12, G’16 is an attorney with the Federal Aviation Administration. He also serves his community in Maryland as an EMT.
“My experience as a college EMT definitely influenced my decision to pursue a career in law. I often encountered situations where patients’ needs were impacted by legal and regulatory barriers, and this made me realize the importance of advocating for policy changes that could improve patient outcomes,” he says.
As an employment attorney, Jennison works to navigate the complex web of employment laws and regulations. “Whether I’m working with an individual manager to address a specific issue or advocating for policy changes at a higher level, my experience as a college EMT continues to influence my work and inspire me to make a positive difference in people’s lives,” he says.
Caring for the Community
For Ryann Washington, a sophomore biology and forensic science major in the College of Arts and Sciences, SUA has given her the opportunity to pursue her passion for health care and make a difference in her community.
“As an EMT, I have been able to provide vital care to patients and improve my knowledge of the health care profession. Being a Black woman in this field is essential, as representation is crucial to ensure patients feel comfortable and receive proper treatment,” she says. “I joined SUA not only to obtain my EMT license but to be an advocate for all students of diverse backgrounds so that they receive the care and attention they deserve in a hospital setting.”
Washington says her work with SUA has helped her learn the value of teamwork. “I hope to inspire other students of color to pursue careers in health care and to feel empowered to take on leadership roles in their communities,” Washington says.
Abby Presson, a junior from Arlington, Virginia, majoring in magazine, news and digital journalism in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, joined SUA in fall 2020 as a first-year student. She came to SUA as a fully certified EMT, joining her dad in service. She continues to be an active member of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department in Fairfax, Virginia, and works shifts for the VVFD when she is home.
Presson is a field supervisor. In addition to her academic schedule, she works one to two 15-hour shifts and a rotating 24-hour weekend shift.
“Joining SUA not only gave me a space where I could grow without fear of judgement, but it gave me a supportive network of friends who have been there for me every step of the way,” she says. “I’m forever going to be grateful to SUA for giving me this environment and support network, and for trusting me to help lead the organization and pass down all the knowledge that was given to me over the years.”
While SUA’s early beginnings were filled with challenges, the performance of its crews over the years have made it into the professional and trusted resource for the University community that it is today.
“It used to bother me that SUA was thought of as ‘just a bunch of kids playing ambulance up on the Hill,’” says Busa. “Today I am proud to say we are still just a bunch of kids up on the hill, providing superior EMS services to the Syracuse University community and beyond as alumni.”