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Ask Anything: 10 questions with Cary EMS Chief Steve Cohen

Posted August 19, 2008
Updated August 26, 2008


What kind of a person would enjoy working in EMS? Are there any common traits to these people? – Bob, Cary

Bob, a great question to start off with. The easy answer is that it's a person who enjoys helping others.

The person also has to like people and have a sense of humor. There is a lot of bantering that occurs in EMS between partners and others in EMS. You must like to eat fast food (at times you never get a chance to finish or even order). A person who likes to be challenged every day, because you never know what or when the next call will occur.

I am in my 27th year in this profession. I am not an expert on what the common traits are, but I do have an opinion. I can tell you what I have seen and learned.

Here are some of the traits I have seen. The EMS person is caring, compassionate, is able to communicate well, has fast instincts, is a problem-solver, is able to think fast to make quick and correct decisions, moves furniture (we find patients in tight spaces), and is able to gain a patient’s trust.

This last one is important. We have a short time to gain the patient’s trust because they are having an emergency and they are depending on us to help them through this emergency. I want to end this question with this: it is also cool to drive an ambulance.


What percentage of people who call in an emergency situation (for example, having a heart attack at home) are saved by EMS? What percentage of people/patients cannot be saved? – Kristie Phillips, Cary

Kristie, first let me define heart attack and cardiac arrest. This may help everyone understand the two terms, which get used interchangeably on a regular basis but have different meanings.

A heart attack is when there is lack (occlusion) of blood flow to the heart muscle and that part of the heart dies. The symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, chest discomfort, pain or discomfort in both arms, trouble breathing, sweating and nausea. Another key is to understand that there might be no pain, and most men deny that they are having a heart attack. Here is a Web site that can provide more information.

A cardiac arrest is when a person stops breathing and the heart stops. First, I want to tell you and everyone, do not delay calling 911 if you are having chest pain or any symptoms that you feel are not normal.

In the Wake County EMS System, we use 12-lead technology on all our ambulances (different views of your heart) to see if you are experiencing a heart attack. We then use Bluetooth technology to transmit our findings to the hospital. We want to transport you to a hospital that can correct the occlusion. We are currently studying this aspect and should have data to report soon.

What I can tell you is that the percentage of patients surviving a cardiac arrest out of the hospital to then be discharged from that hospital is 38 percent in Wake County. The national average is about 20 percent. Why are we so much better? We have a great team that starts with the lay public.

Kristie, for example, you recognize that someone is in cardiac arrest, you call 911, and you tell the 911 operator the requested information, including that you do not know CPR. The 911 operator has already dispatched EMS and the fire department while talking to you. The 911 operator can teach you to do CPR over the telephone. The fire department arrives and takes over CPR and applies the defibrillator. A few minutes later, EMS arrives and provides emergency treatment that includes IV therapy, medication administration, advance airway procedures, and defibrillations if necessary and then transports to the hospital.

One of the reasons we have been successful is that our medical director instituted additional training and new protocols that cool down a person who has been resuscitated in the out-of-hospital environment. So it is a team effort from the public, 911 operator, fire department, EMS and hospital that allows us to be on the cutting edge.


We recently called 911 for a woman in a grocery store parking lot visiting from out of town. She was eventually OK, got in her car and left. After the ambulance left, we wondered: Will she get billed for this call? How is that determined? – Jim Metcalf, Cary

Jim, I am asked this question on a regular basis. It is a good question.

I am not sure what occurred with the patient you mentioned, but more than likely she would not have received a bill. When we respond, our intention is to treat the patient and transport them to the hospital. Some patients call EMS and then do not want to be transported after receiving treatment. Depending on that treatment (assessment, vital signs, IV, medication, heart monitor placement and evaluation) the patient would receive a bill. If a patient receives an assessment, vital signs, and a blood sugar check and still refuses transport, they would not receive a bill.

I want to let everyone know that the Wake County Rescue Squad Fund campaign will be starting soon – $60 per year allows you and all permanent members living at that address to receive 911 ambulance service anywhere in Wake County. This relieves you of any out-of-pocket expense not paid by your insurance. The subscription money goes directly to the ambulance service that serves your area. This money helps the EMS services (Apex, Cary, Garner, Eastern Wake and Six Forks) with operating costs. You still will receive EMS service if you do not subscribe. For more information, click here.


As a parent of a child with severe food allergies, I would like to know if all Wake County EMS providers are required to carry epinephrine. – Susan Gates, Cary

Susan, all Wake County EMS System ambulances carry epinephrine. Please stop by and I will give you a tour of our ambulance and the equipment we carry.


Are y'all hiring EMT-Bs? And, if so part-time or full-time? Also do you have to live in Wake County to work for Cary EMS? One more thing, do y'all do ride-alongs? It would be great to ride in a city that gets more than four calls a day! – Samantha Oakley, Rougemont

Samantha, thanks for inquiring about employment with Cary Area EMS. At this time we are not looking to hire EMTs. Our Web site is the best place to look for current job openings.

We have an excellent volunteer program. We are always looking for volunteers all year round. Our volunteers are one of many reasons Cary Area EMS is great.

No, you do not have to live in Wake County or Cary to be employed or volunteer at Cary Area EMS. If you are interested in riding along as an observer, just give me a call at 380-6909 and I will schedule a ride-along for you.


Have EMS teams started using the new practice of cardiac compression without resuscitation? For years, the AHA (American Heart Association) has taught CPR, and lately we've been hearing about studies showing that the compressions are far more important than the resuscitation. Is it too soon to start and teach this new practice? – Sarah Norris, Scotland Neck

Sarah, I am glad you asked this question. There is a lot of talk and news coverage on the new compression rate when using CPR. I am proud to say that the Wake County EMS has been performing this new standard for more than two years. Our medical director is proactive and placed this skill in our practice.


I was the second chief of the Cary Area Rescue Squad back in the mid-70s. Our training consisted of an American Red Cross class and some training with the fire department. What type of training is required today for your squad? Keep up the good work! – Walter Powell, Apex

Chief, thanks for writing. I see your portrait on the Chief’s Wall everyday and we thank you for your service to Cary Area EMS.

Training has changed in EMS since your tenure. In North Carolina, there are three state certifications a person can achieve in EMS. All three levels learn about medical, trauma, obstetric and environmental emergencies and treatments.

The first level is Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), which is 169 hours of training. This is the initial certification and includes course work and practical sessions. After completing this course work, there is a state certification test that the student will take to obtain the certification as well as the other two levels.

The next step is EMT-Intermediate, which is 256 hours. At this level, the student builds on what he or she learned as an EMT, which includes recognizing and treating heart rhythms, IV therapy, pharmacology, administrating medications, advance airway procedures and clinical rotations in the hospital and in the field.

The next level is EMT-Paramedic. In North Carolina, the course is 1,096 hours, which builds on both the previous levels, includes extensive education and training: recognizing and treating heart rhythms, cardiology, pharmacology, administration of medications, IV therapy and advance airway procedures, to name some of the topics covered. There are also clinical rotations.

After becoming state-certified, there is continuing education. At Cary Area EMS, we train every month. As a paramedic, I attend mandatory training with the medical director every other month. There are numerous EMS professionals that attend training every month. Also, if you hold a national certification, you must complete 48 hours of core training, plus an additional 24 hours within a two-year period.

Here is an interesting fact to know: you can obtain an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree in EMS.


Do you think that Cary, Apex and Six Forks will become one EMS agency? Wake County is pushing for more mergers. Where will Garner fit in with all this? What is the time table? Thanks from a former Six Forks Rescue member. – Bob Edmundson, Raleigh

Bob, thanks for being part of a great system and great organization. I will do my best to answer your questions.

Please indulge me for a few seconds as I explain for those who do not know how EMS works in North Carolina. In North Carolina, the counties are responsible for providing EMS to the citizens and visitors.

The Wake County EMS System is made up of Apex, Cary, Garner, Eastern Wake, Six Forks and Wake County EMS. We function as a system, using the same protocols, standardized equipment (heart monitors, computers for example), training and medical director.

The Wake County commissioners have asked all departments to look at consolidations. Since Apex, Cary, Eastern Wake, Garner and Six Forks EMS have contracts with Wake County government to provide EMS, the system is looking at consolidations. There is no time table for consolidations. At this time, I do not know if Cary, Apex, Garner or Six Forks will consolidate.


Time-to-shock has been identified as a critical factor in survival of sudden cardiac arrest. Does Cary EMS compute and publish statistics of response time and time-to-shock? What is your performance goal? What are you doing to keep this time low? What can the public or other agencies do to help? – Heath Roberts, Durham

Heath, thanks for asking about this topic. I can tell you that on a regular basis, the Wake County EMS system looks at data to see how we are performing.

As mentioned above, Wake County has a 38 percent discharge rate from the hospital after a cardiac arrest. What we want is to have a defibrillator to the scene of a cardiac arrest as fast as we can. We do this by having defibrillators on fire trucks. The fire departments in Cary, Raleigh and Wake County all have defibrillators as part of the equipment on their apparatus. We work well with all the fire departments, which is important because we all want the same outcome, which is to save lives.

The public can help by making sure that AEDs (automatic external defibrillators) are in public buildings, churches and airports, to name a few places. The public can learn CPR. One other aspect to know is that there should be no hesitation for the public to call 911. We know that some of our patients say they do not want to bother us, but you are not. So please, if you need an ambulance, do not hesitate to call 911.

The data for the system is presented at the quarterly meeting of the Peer Review Committee. This meeting is open to the public and is mandated by the state. The next meeting is in September, which you are invited to attend. The meeting is held at the Wake County EMS Training facility. If you want more information, please contact me at 380-6909.


After witnessing a horrible accident where people are obviously injured, what should you do besides call 911? Should you get out and try to help until EMS gets there, or stay in your car and wait for the professionals? This is a long-running disagreement between my husband and I. – Stephanie Davis, Raleigh

Stephanie, you ask a question that is difficult to answer. Let me start by telling you what we learn on our first day in EMT school.

We learn to make sure the scene is safe before entering. We also learn that we cannot help if we are injured or dead. For example, we respond to a shooting. We will stage a few blocks from the incident until the scene is secured by law enforcement. Though we are trained to handle emergencies and want to get to the patient as fast as we can, we let the professionals do their job so we can do ours. It is a tough lesson to learn.

In my career, I have been trapped for 45 minutes under gun fire, almost stabbed and have had a few frozen turkeys thrown my way. I, as well as other EMS professionals, understand the risks involved in our job, but we also want to go home at the end of our shift.

So to answer your question, my advice is that if you see an accident, call 911 and let the professionals perform their duties.

ask anything - dmi


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  • Just the facts mam Aug 19, 2008

    Interesting answers... Living in Cary I am also appreciate of the work they do!!!

  • rehenry Aug 19, 2008

    As a former member of Cary EMS for many years I would just like to applaud Steve on an excellent job. Running an organization with such diverse personalities, plus all the stress of making sure an ambulance is there when you need it is a thankless job. To all of you in Cary EMS thanks so much for what you do. We are fortunate to have you in our community.

  • Glass Half Full Aug 19, 2008

    "So to answer your question, my advice is if you see an accident, call 911 and let the professionals perform their duties."

    I also agree that it depends. If your failure to act would cause further harm or death to an individual, by all means, do what you are able. If all you can do is call 911 and offer a reassuring voice, then do it. But you must remember not to put yourself in harms way becuase you do nothing but compound an already bad situation if you become part of the problem.

  • slugolicious Aug 19, 2008

    "So to answer your question, my advice is if you see an accident, call 911 and let the professionals perform their duties."

    It seems like the answer would be "it depends". If you're in a more rural area and the time for professionals to arrive is longer than an in-city accident *and* you have CPR training *and* you make sure the scene is safe, it seems like you should help.