A Community of Care

The student EMTs who make up Colby Emergency Response have been keeping campus in good hands for decades

Sophia Strine '24 checks her equipment in the Colby Emergency Medical Services vehicle while on shift as a Colby EMT.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Ashley L. Conti
July 1, 2024

Michelle Bechtel ’25 was in the middle of a sociology class this spring when her emergency pager went off, its jarring, insistent alarm startling her and disrupting the professor’s lecture.

But Bechtel, a licensed emergency medical technician who belongs to Colby Emergency Response, the student-run rescue squad, had no time to explain. She left her books, grabbed the medical bag she carries during her 24-hour shift, and ran out the classroom door, heading to the scene of the medical call.

After the emergency was resolved, Bechtel returned to the classroom to pick up her things, and she found the professor waiting for her. 

“I was apologizing profusely because I felt really bad about having to leave,” the studio art major said. “But he was appreciative.” 

It’s not always easy being an on-campus emergency responder, but for nearly a half-century students have cared for the medical needs of their community with dedication, compassion, and skill. The 35 members of the Colby Emergency Response balance classes, extracurricular activities, friends, sports, and work with rigorous medical training and shifts that run the gamut from sleepy to stressful. 

And they do it well. They even run their own Jan Plan course to train new student EMTs, and it’s so popular that it fills up every year. Many newly licensed EMTs who took the course volunteer to become the first responders who are on call on campus during the academic year, fulfilling the group’s mission to provide exceptional and reliable emergency medical coverage. 

“We get all kinds of calls on this campus. We can respond to anyone, whether or not it’s a Colby student, or visitor, or staff member, or faculty member,” said Sophia Strine ’24, a biology major with a concentration in neuroscience and the outgoing chief of service for Colby Emergency Response. “We have calls ranging from heart attacks to allergic reactions where we give epinephrine to ‘I slipped on the ice, and I think I have a concussion.’ It could be absolutely anything. Which is really fun and keeps our job kind of exciting.” 

Sophia Strine ’24, the outgoing chief of service for Colby Emergency Response, shows some of the equipment she would bring to a call while on shift as a Colby EMT.

‘It makes campus safer’

The students opt to join Colby Emergency Response for many reasons. Some like the adrenaline rush, while others want hands-on experience before launching into a post-collegiate medical career. Some students enjoy it so much they search out other first responder opportunities off campus, where they provide a valuable service to Maine towns that often struggle to fill their emergency response rosters. 

All share something basic—the desire to help people. Their commitment to this goal makes campus a better place, according to Marc Amaral, the assistant director of security at the College. 

“They’re rock stars. I think it’s an incredible program,” he said. “It makes campus safer, 100 percent.” 

Colby Emergency Response is believed to be one of the oldest collegiate EMS services in the country, according to its members. The program began in 1978 when a group of EMT-trained students saw the need for a first-responder service. Students Jim Elmore ’80 and Alice Domar ’80 took the lead in establishing the Student Primary Emergency Care Service, or SPECS, to fill that need, according to the history of Colby Emergency Response

Back then, there was not a formal communications system. In an emergency, a nurse would try to call each EMT’s room in hopes they were there. In 1979, with assistance from Colby Health Services, the Department of Security, and the Student Government Association, the group was given radio pagers to aid communications.

Backboards, CPR training mannequins, and other supplies fill the Colby Emergency Response office in the Garrison-Foster Building. For nearly 50 years, Colby students have run a first responder service on campus.

Shortly after the program launched, the Jan Plan EMT training course began, and student interest grew. In 1988 its name was changed to Colby Emergency Response. Today, the group operates out of an office on the lower floor of the Garrison-Foster Building, a crowded space that holds binders, backboards, CPR training mannequins, and much more, along with a couple of bunks used by off-campus students when they do an overnight shift. 

Parked outside the building is the pride and joy of the emergency response students: the new CER car, a blue-and-white Ford Explorer clearly labeled with the Colby EMS logo and phone number. Getting a car has been a dream of the organization for more than 20 years, and the students are ecstatic that it has finally come to fruition. They keep it stocked with supplies that include oxygen, a backboard, and an automated external defibrillator. 

“It’s like a little ambulance in a car,” Strine said. 

They use the car to transport relatively stable patients to nearby emergency rooms for more treatment, thus saving the cost of an ambulance bill, which could be as much as $2,000. 

A team of professionals

The student EMTs have an easy camaraderie often found among groups of people who spend a lot of time together and share experiences that are sometimes high-stakes and stressful. Although they are young, they are intensely and intentionally professional. While they’re on call, they have to stay on campus, can’t go to the gym or otherwise engage in physical activity, and can’t have a lab class or an exam because they have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. They respond to calls in teams of four so newer first responders can learn from those more experienced. 

“It’s been a big part of my Colby experience, for sure,” Strine said. “You have to be really committed to it because you’re working a 24-hour shift a week and also going to two training sessions a month, sometimes three.” 

Wilson Stecher ’24, Sophia Strine ’24, and Morgan Cheney ’24, grab a bite to eat between classes while doing a shift with Colby Emergency Response. While on call, Colby EMTs must be ready at a moment’s notice to respond to an emergency, and always wear uniforms and bring their medical bags with them around campus.

Students run their own training programs, including the popular Jan Plan EMT course. They manage the organization themselves under the oversight of Dr. Michael E. Clark ’82, who is part of the MaineGeneral Health system and was an early member of the Colby Emergency Response service as a student. 

For Kyle Arthenayake, associate director of community living, seeing the uniformed EMTs walking around campus with their bulky, fluorescent backpacks filled with medical gear gives him peace of mind. “They very much are aware of the responsibility they have toward the campus and keeping their peers safe,” he said. “They give so much to the campus community and hold such an important role.” 

Colby Emergency Response also works collaboratively with the Department of Security and area first responders. Chief Deputy Everett Flannery of the Waterville Fire Department said his agency has worked often, and well, with the campus group.  

“They are a valuable asset here in the city of Waterville. They’re another resource for us,” Flannery said, adding that it’s not uncommon for the students to work part time for Waterville and other surrounding communities. “A lot of these students, they sort of get bit by the fire and EMS bug. They enter the field.” 

A future in helping others

Some students find their avocations through Colby Emergency Response. That’s what happened for Morgan Cheney ’24, a studio art major who came to Colby knowing she wanted to be part of Colby Emergency Response. She even took an EMT training course the summer before she started college. 

“If I got a head start on that, then I would have a hobby that I could continue through college,” she said. 

But it is more than a hobby now. While a member of CER, she became an advanced EMT and has worked part time for the Waterville Fire Department, Delta Ambulance Corp., and the Oakland Fire Department. Along the way, she became an accredited firefighter and has decided to stay in Waterville and work for the fire department after graduating. 

She spent her senior year photographing her experiences as a firefighter. A collection of those photographs, called Pride in Duty, was displayed at this spring’s senior art exhibition, winning an honorable mention for the Art Department’s President’s Prize. 

“I like serving my community and getting to know the people that I live around,” Cheney said. 

Wilson Stecher ’24, who double majored in Spanish and biology with a concentration in neuroscience, said that his time as a Colby EMT has helped him narrow his focus. He’s now doing a two-year fellowship working with young teenagers at a psychiatric hospital in Boston. 

“I’ve definitely found that through [Colby Emergency Response] the pieces that I find the most gratifying are not really the nitty gritty medicine. It’s connecting with and feeling like you’re supporting the patient,” he said. “I feel like that’s where my strengths lie.” 

Wilson Stecher ’24 sets up to work on a group project in the F.W. Olin Science Center between classes while doing a shift with Colby Emergency Response.

Another student who takes their EMT skills into the wider world is Abdel Abdelsadig ’26, a biology-biochemistry major from Alexandria, Va. In the summers, he works as an EMT in that city, where the on-call shifts are often almost the polar opposite of shifts at the College—fast-paced and very, very busy. 

“I just like having the capacity to keep people safe,” Abdelsadig said. 

Many alumni of Colby Emergency Response have continued in the medical field after graduation, including working as doctors, surgeons, nurses, and paramedics. Strine, who plans to head to medical school, said her experience working for the campus rescue program has only clarified that she’s on the right track. 

“There’s nothing like doing patient care to say that you’re prepared for medical school,” she said. “Through CER, you get to give back to the college community, and you are also getting this valuable experience. Just to have that under your belt, and to know that you like it, is a huge thing.”