The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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May 11, 2012

METS celebrates 30 years of service

JOPLIN, Mo. — Joplin’s Metro Emergency Transport System will mark its 30th anniversary later this month — nearly one year after the most challenging event in its history.

When the May 22 tornado struck, METS had six ambulances on duty, but within 30 minutes, three others were deployed, said Jason Smith, director of emergency medical services for METS. Newton County Ambulance Service responded with 11 ambulances within the first 30 minutes, meaning there were 20 ambulances in the disaster zone within the hour.

That was not enough.

Smith said that when an ambulance would arrive in a neighborhood, people would swarm around it and attempt to get their injured family members and friends on board.

“In about the first two hours, we probably transported about 250 patients,” Smith said.

Ambulance officials quickly realized they needed to change their strategy.

“Once we realized how big the event actually was, we stopped transporting and we set up treatment areas all across the affected area,” Smith said. “And basically we would just have people come to us. People would come to those treatment areas. We would stabilize them — treat them the best we could. People were using private cars and pickups to actually transport people to the hospital. We were able to do a lot better triage.”

He said they treated dozens of people with debris imbedded in their bodies or with amputated limbs.

“The job that they did, they deserve so much credit and recognition,” Smith said of his crews.

Darrell Donham, operations manager, has been with METS since 2004. He was in his pickup returning from a fire call when he heard someone on the radio reporting a tornado on the ground at 20th Street and Maiden Lane. He started in that direction, and soon encountered people standing in the middle of the road. He checked to see if they were OK.

“While I was sitting in my pickup at 20th Street, I was sending out an ‘all call’ page from my laptop in my truck — everybody needs to come in.”

He turned his attention to developing a plan and coordinating crews.

One crew

Among the crews on duty on May 22 were partners Alexis Jeffers and Amanda Cox. Jeffers has been with METS for about 3 1/2 years and Cox has been with the company about three years. They had both worked together in the emergency room at Freeman Health System.

Jeffers said she had no idea bad weather was approaching, but Cox said she had caught some forecasts.

“I had heard that there was going to be thunderstorms that day,” she said. “I don’t know if they said tornadoes or not. I remember thunderstorms and hail and I think that’s why I brought the fire helmets.”

The helmets proved useful as hail pummeled them after the tornado.

They said that when they heard Donham on the radio, they headed to Main Street between 17th and 18th streets.

“We got out and started helping people,” Jeffers said. “It was hailing and pouring on us.”

They had eight people in their ambulance on their first trip to Freeman Hospital West. It took 20 minutes to get there, after they found a route that bypassed debris.

They estimated they transported 50 people to the hospital that night, with at least two or three patients on the ambulance for each trip.

After their first trip to Freeman, they were directed to the Greenbriar Nursing Home near 26th Street and Moffett Avenue, where the search was continuing for survivors. More than 16 people at the nursing home died that night.

Cox still hadn’t heard from her husband, a Joplin firefighter and a part-time emergency medical technician with METS.

“The first time I saw him was at Greenbriar, across the rubble,” Cox said. “That’s the first time I knew he was OK. I saw him digging through the rubble.”

She said he gave her a little wave when the two saw each other.

Jeffers said she also initially couldn’t reach her husband, but he eventually was able to text her.

Many victims walked around dazed, trying to find loved ones and their pets.

“And then there were people (and) they were like, ‘I can help,’ which was awesome,” Jeffers said.

Smith said in the coming days and weeks, more than 100 ambulance agencies responded from seven states, some coming from as far away as Illinois.

Jeffers said that every day, and not just on May 22, 2011, their work is a calling inspired by a desire to help people. Not all calls are as traumatic.

“If it’s just a little old lady who calls because she’s lonely, you go there and talk to her and let her know she’s not alone,” Jeffers said. “I know it’s very cliché. I like to help people.”

Cox said it beats working at a desk.

“It’s not boring,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next. I enjoy it.”

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