Editor's note: This article is part of a series looking at the day-to-day lives of local people in various professions.
HANCOCK - One minute paramedic Jason Mohar could be relaxing in the Mercy Emergency Medical Service employee lounge, and the next minute responding to a cardiac arrest call. One minute retired state trooper and volunteer first responder Dan Sarazin could be fast asleep at 3 a.m., and the next minute responding to the scene of a multi-car accident.
It all comes with the territory of a day in the life of a first responder.
Daily Mining Gazette/Stephen Anderson
Paramedic Jason Mohar stands next to an ambulance outside the Mercy EMS office, near Houghton County Memorial Airport. The Calumet native has been responding to emergencies at Mercy since 2004.
Mercy EMS, which is co-owned by Portage Health and Aspirus Keweenaw, is staffed 24/7 by paid paramedics, Emergency Medical Technicians and specialists; while many volunteer first responder agencies work with Mercy to respond to emergencies all across the vast geographic area of the Copper Country.
"Every day is different. I guess that's what makes the job so unique," said Mohar, who grew up in Calumet and has now worked at Mercy EMS since May 2004. "I start work at 6 in the morning, it could be just get your chores done and do nothing all day, or it could be busy running 911 calls or doing transfers back and forth to Marquette."
He works his 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift as part of a two-person crew, and he is then on call from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. He generally only works three days per week and alternates weekends, but in the rare case of a true 24-hour shift or the rarer-still back-to-back shift, much of that "off" time is spent catching up on missed sleep. Mercy has two daytime crews with an on-call back-up crew, then a nighttime crew with two crews on back-up.
"Some days are slow, some days are extremely busy with 5 to 10 calls in an average 12-hour shift," said Mohar, who graduated from Lake Superior State with a degree in fire science and a minor in paramedics. After that non-traditional route - not many paramedics choose the university path - he took a year-long EMT class and secured his paramedic license another year after that.
"Sometimes you sit and wait, but at any given notice, we could be dispatched," Mohar said. "Probably on average one out of 10 calls will be more adrenaline pumping than the rest. For the most part it's just helping people out, helping out the community. We're trained and capable to do so at any given notice to go above and beyond the average day."
With the aging population in the Copper Country, the most common calls - especially this time of year around first snowfall - involve responding to elderly people falling or needing assistance in getting to the hospital for illnesses. But really, responders never know what to expect when Negaunee Regional 911 Dispatch Center calls, pages or radios in an emergency.
"Sometimes you get a call where it sounds like someone's sick - and I'm not minimizing that they're sick - and needs to go to the hospital versus all of a sudden you get there and the whole scene just blows up in your face. You don't really know," said Sarazin, who has spent almost 20 years with Bootjack Fire and Rescue and has been a fire chief for more than 30 years. He and his wife now run their own business, U.P. Foods, so he can respond to a call whenever it comes in. Not all first responders are so flexible.
"All of these first responder units are volunteer. There's no reimbursement for them and they're all extremely busy and only getting busier," Sarazin said. "You always have to be ready, and people still have their personal lives they need to live, too. You balance that all together.
"It can be very rewarding, and it can be tough. Especially, you take people on shift work, may have to get up a couple times during the night and go on calls, and they still have to be able to function and do their normal job."
Due to the spread-out area Mercy EMS (located near Houghton County Memorial Airport) has to cover - from Copper Harbor in Keweenaw County to the Ontonagon County line - more localized first responders play a critical role in often arriving on scene first.
Houghton County first responder agencies, for example, include Bootjack, Dollar Bay, Chassell, Adams Township, Stanton and Otter Lake. They are all organized under local fire departments, and many first responders have the unique challenge of wearing two hats at the scene of a fire: firefighter and paramedic. Bay Ambulance, Inc. performs the role of Mercy EMS in Baraga County, while SONCO Ambulance responds in Ontonagon County.
Some first responder units respond to more than 300 calls per year, according to Sarazin, and volunteer units have to guarantee at least a minimal response, which sometimes leads to burnout. Mohar also acknowledged burnout as a reality among paid paramedics, though it's much more prevalent in bigger cities where the call load is much greater.
"Everybody is different. Some people take it more emotionally. Some people can block that and not take your work home with you. For me, that's how I am," Mohar said. "I'll do my care and treatments to the best of my ability to make sure this patient gets the best possible care, but at the end of the day, you can't worry if I would have done something different, or if I would have changed anything, would the outcome have been better? You'd beat yourself up at night."
Brad Banfield, Dollar Bay first responder and full-time employee at his family-run Dollar Bay Linoleum & Tile Co., noted, "You're either in or out. You either like the job or you don't."
But for all the bad calls and sad outcomes first responders have to deal with, few things are more rewarding than saving a life.
"You don't see a lot of your benefits or rewards because you don't hear what happens to the patients after you bring them to the hospital," Mohar said. "But to turn around and see somebody who you didn't think was going to pull through and here they are alive and well and doing great; it's a very unique, special feeling."
According to Sarazin, critical incident debriefing is important in all emergency response professions, and he admits that "sometimes these can get pretty gory, but you have a job to do and you gotta do it."
He noted that local agencies are always looking for more volunteer first responders, and if somebody is interested in getting certified, they can contact a local fire department.
It's a challenging profession or volunteer position, and it's not for everyone, but helping people makes it all worthwhile, according to Sarazin, Banfield and Mohar.
"Patients always tell me, 'We didn't want to call you, but this was my only choice,'" Mohar said. "We say, 'That's what we're here for, we're here to help.'"