Grand Haven Tribune: NOCH ambulance service celebrates 50 years
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NOCH ambulance service celebrates 50 years

Becky Vargo • Mar 11, 2019 at 7:00 AM

Patient care regulation changes in the late 1960s caused the funeral homes transporting sick and injured people to bow out of the business.

That opened the door for private agencies and hospitals, such as North Ottawa Community Hospital, to fill that void.

EMS Director Tom Stanley said the local municipalities provided an ambulance service initially. Then NOCH took it over.

The Emergency Medical Service at NOCH is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019.

Advanced first aid was required for anyone responding in an ambulance to a medical situation.

Initially, employees started out as drivers, and then became advanced first aid certified, Stanley said.

Orderlies worked in the hospital until they got a call.

Grand Haven Dr. Jack Roossien was one of the first orderlies employed back in 1969 while a student at Grand Valley State College.

The family practice doctor said he remembers riding around with the funeral home director to learn how to transport patients.

“Initially, it was how to go someplace and carry without dropping someone,” he said.

“After about a year, we realized we needed some kind of program,” Roossien said.

Roossien said that he wrote a program that started out with basic first aid.

The funeral homes didn’t provide patient care, although they carried first aid kits with them, Roossien said.

North Ottawa was ahead of its time providing basic first aid, and then more advanced aid when transporting a patient, he said.

Within another year, orderlies had to fulfill state requirements to become emergency medical technicians.

That’s when North Ottawa got its first ambulance – a modified Chevy truck, Roossien said. The ambulance could hold four patients – two on benches and two on stretchers suspended from the ceiling. 

Early EMT uniforms were all white.

Roossien said they wore a white, barber-style loose shirt that buttoned down the side. They also wore white pants and white shoes.

“You wore the same outfit summer and winter,” he said. Only in the winter you wore a light parka too.

Bob Deters was in charge of the ambulance crew at the time and he kept building the team, Roossien said.

“We had two or three crews to cover all the hours,” the doctor said.

Eventually Roossien graduated with degrees in biology and psychology from Grand Valley.

Because his draft number was never called, Roossien signed up for officer candidate school for the Navy and ended up being the diving officer on a salvage ship, which he said was basically also a floating ambulance.

He returned to North Ottawa Community Hospital as an EMT after his 4-year stint in the Navy. That’s when he went back to nursing school and then eventually to medical school. 

Over those years, regulations became stricter and the EMT staff more educated to the point of everyone becoming paramedics.

Warren Billett started as a paramedic in 1985, about the same time they switched from Suburbans to the modular-style ambulances they have now.

“When I started, were one truck 24/7,” Billett said. That eventually went to two trucks during the day and one at night, to two each shift.

Stanley said they are working numbers now to see if they need to add a fifth ambulance to the fleet.

Billett took over as ambulance director in 2006, right in the middle of the Blue Ribbon Panel discussions of whether or not to privatize the ambulance service. 

That’s when the panel decided whatever ambulance service was used; it had to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services.

Billett said the scope of training was always changing and advancing.

With the new accreditation, it went from, “when this happens, this is what you need to do,” to “why you do it and what happens when you do it,” Billett said.

The paramedic team rose to the level and has remained there in subsequent assessments.

“We were about the 180th service in the nation to get CAAS,” Billett said.

According to the CAAS website, there are 27 agencies accredited in Michigan. Those include NOCH, Life, ProMed and AMS.

California has 28 accredited agencies while Florida has 17. Of the states surrounding Michigan, Ohio has six agencies accredited by CAAS, Illinois has three, and Indiana and Wisconsin both have two.

“I was proud to join NOCH in 1985 because of the reputation it had for being good,” Billett said, emphasizing that the trend continues.

“I’m very proud I still work there,” said Billett, who stopped directing the program in 2015. “I hope I can do it for a while yet.”

The current director, Stanley, said regulations have advanced to the point that care such as one would receive in the emergency room can now be done on the street.

He noted that when the hospital’s new emergency room opened three years ago, that EMS staff worked closely with officials on the design.

The NOCH ambulance staff consists of the director, 17 full-time paramedics, five full-time dispatchers and several part-time paramedics.

There are four ambulances, with the possibility of adding a fifth soon, Stanley said. There is also the ASAP 6-wheeled vehicle used as a mini ambulance on the beach or during crowded events such as Coast Guard Festival.

Stanley said it takes 2-3 years to become an emergency medical technician. It goes from there to specialist and then to paramedic.

“They have to do state boards,” Stanley said. “It’s a pretty rigorous training program.”

Where the paramedics used to work in the hospital, helping the nurses, they now station the ambulances out in the communities, which gives better response time in emergencies. 

A Day in the Life

Paramedics work 12-hour shifts on the ambulance. The day shift starts at 7 a.m. with checkout of equipment, Stanley said.

The crew of two goes to their assigned post “and they wait,” Stanley said. “No day is the same.”

On a busy day they start out with medicals, including a higher volume of calls from the nursing facilities.

On bad weather days there are car crashes and seasonal illnesses such as the flu.

“Our population grows, almost triples in the summer,” Stanley said. “The call volume increases dramatically.”

Stanley says a lot of planning is done with the police and fire departments, as well as the neighboring ambulance agencies, for mutual aid.

“We staff up for big events like the Fourth of July and Coast Guard,” he said. 

Stanley said they plan to do a staff picnic and hope to have a reunion of anyone still around who worked for the ambulance service.

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