The long-running Hoboken High School Emergency Response Team – a group of students certified as first responders and emergency medical technicians who assisted city emergency volunteers in the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy – was disbanded by the district at the beginning of the school year, much to the chagrin of its members and alumni.
The club allowed students to be certified as first responders during their freshman and sophomore years of high school, before training to be a certified technician, or EMT. During their junior and senior years, the EMTs would use their own ambulance to assist the Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Squad (HVAC) in answering 911 calls around the city, and all calls that came from Hoboken public schools.
“I think the city has always cared more about what we do than the school district did,” said Juan Antigua, 18, a senior and four-year veteran of the team. “Sandy underscored it. The city asked us to march in the Memorial Day parade, but the district cancelled our program.”
The team helped evacuate Hoboken University Medical Center before the storm hit last October and answered several hundred 911 calls during the day of the hurricane and in the week that followed.
Although all high school students were given the option of staying home, the entire team, and some alumni, showed up every day, said Antigua.
In addition to its importance to the city, the program provided educational and career opportunities the students might not have found elsewhere, they said. Several recent high school graduates that left school already certified as EMTs have received full scholarships to college and have gone onto medical school.
“I was looking at a full ride to college and a job afterwards. And now I don’t have either.” – Hoboken High School senior and certified EMT Juan Antigua
The head of the city’s volunteer ambulance corps said that the program’s disbanding was a huge loss not only for the students, but for the city as well.
“They were an integral part of the citywide ambulance program,” said HVAC’s head, Thomas Molta. “They took a lot of pressure off of us when there would be lots of calls, and they always handled themselves with professionalism. They put their hearts and souls into their jobs.”
An issue with numbers
According to Superintendant of Schools Mark Toback and high school Principal Robin Piccapietra, the program had been declining in participation levels for some time and was too complicated to be treated simply as an elective.
If it were to be done properly, Toback argued, it would have to be treated as a vocational program that would require approval and oversight from the state Department of Education. Hoboken High School, Toback said, is not a vocational school.
“The overall problem is that what they were trying to do was run a vocational program as an elective,” he said in an interview. “I don’t feel comfortable running a program like this without approval.”
Furthermore, declining enrollment was an issue, Piccapietra said. Antigua claimed that 11 students signed up for the elective last spring, when club recruitment usually takes place. Schedules mailed to students over the summer included the EMT program, but when they arrived on the first day of school, they were given new schedules, this time omitting the program.
“When we asked what had happened, we were told not enough kids had signed up, and so the program was thrown out,” said Antigua.
So the students went out and collected several more recruits willing to participate, submitting a list of 30 to Piccapietra’s office. On Thursday, Antigua said, Piccapietra told him it wasn’t good enough.
“I looked down the list, and it was clear it wasn’t going to work,” the principal said in a phone interview. “I appreciated their efforts, but there were 18 or 19 seniors on the list who wouldn’t get anything out of the program, five who played sports and would be too busy, which leaves you basically with the same number of kids as originally.”
The students and Toback have disputed the original number. Toback said only seven students had signed up, while Antigua insists on 11. He said that the average enrollment since 2001 was around 10.
When asked if he thought there was merit in cancelling a program that’s one of a kind in the entire state of New Jersey, Toback said that the statistic itself is alarming.
“If something is so unique that it isn’t being done anywhere else, there’s probably a reason for that,” he said.
What happens now?
Molta was quick to point out that Hoboken residents should not worry about the city’s ability to provide every resident with emergency care. In addition to the three operated by HVAC, several ambulances from McCabe Ambulance in Bayonne have been contracted to work out of Hoboken University Medical Center.
The only difference is that with McCabe, those who use an ambulance will receive a bill, while HVAC and the high school service was free.
There are some issues that the district will have to work out in the wake of the program’s disbanding. For instance, the team was responsible for providing legally-mandated ambulance at all home football games. Without the team’s ambulance, Toback said, the district will have to hire an ambulance, at the cost of around $2,000.
Caused a dangerous situation
Another issue is who will handle 911 calls in the schools. Last week, Antigua said, a medical emergency in the high school turned dangerous when, apparently unaware that the program was terminated, the EMT team was called, but was legally blocked from providing care.
The HVAC buses were busy, and a McCabe ambulance had to come.
“It was kind of astounding,” said Antigua. “I was standing there with all of my training and I couldn’t do anything.”
Perhaps the most important issue, to the students at least, is how missing their final year in the program will affect their futures. Antigua, for one, was counting on his full EMT qualification to land him a full-ride scholarship to Montclair State University, which he said has an emergency services program and provides funding to pre-certified students.
“I was looking at a full ride to college and a job afterwards,” he said. “And now I don’t have either.”
Piccapietra said that the school’s guidance counselors would work specially with Antigua and other team members to fulfill their academic and career goals.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer, upon hearing of the program’s cancellation, said that she had spoken to Toback and understood his position, but noted that she was exploring other avenues for the students to enjoy such a program.
She suggested that in the future, the district could establish a student wing of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), a group of trained citizens who help in emergencies.
“I think it’s important that there still be opportunities like the ambulance program for the kids to serve their communities,” she said. “If we can work it out, I would love for them to get involved with strengthening our city before the next storm.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org