EMTs: PCB Spring Break had become ‘unmanageable’

Driving in an area of Panama City Beach infamously known as “the triangle,” Bay County EMT Capt. Joel Welch pointed out the window to a parking lot across from the super clubs where medics would station and wait for an emergency during Spring Breaks of the past.

It never took long, he said.

Welch recalled the days before the 2015 adoption of Spring Break laws, including the ban of alcohol on the beach sand. Fights and alcohol-related medical issues were commonplace among the record-breaking call volumes. And in the final few years of unfettered alcohol consumption on the beach during Spring Break, the mob mentality of the hundreds of raucous college-aged visitors took a turn toward endangering patients and paramedics alike.

“It was just craziness — anything went,” Welch said, recalling the years building up to the laws. “It was a slow increase, but it seemed like three or four years before [the laws] there was a difference in the crowd. The mentality was more unruly.”

Welch, who has been an EMT in Bay County since 1996, said some college-aged visitors would be helpful in emergencies — helping clear the way, for example — but the volatile situations mostly put him and his patients in danger.

“Getting into a crowd with your gear and everything was one thing,” he said. “Carrying a patient out was another. It wasn’t like Moses and the Red Sea.”

However, as Welch drove along the Beach on Saturday, responding to scooter crashes and cardiac calls, he said the call volume and types of calls in the past two years have been much more manageable. Since the implementation of the Spring Break laws, EMS calls have decreased substantially, according to county records.

In 2015, medical personnel responded to 3,413 calls — some nights breaking records of crews working upward of 170 medical emergencies. In 2016, the calls decreased by about 15 percent to 2,881. In 2017, medics responded to 2,576 calls and were on track for a similar outcome in 2018, working 1,240 just after mid-March, records stated.

Mark Bowen, Bay County’s chief of emergency services, said it is difficult to attribute the fluctuation of numbers to one certain thing. Weather and the economy also influence the lack of bodies at the beach, which ultimately affects the number of medical issues. What is certain, though, is that paramedics and all other emergency responders saw relief following the Spring Break laws, Bowen said.

“We still have an influx of people to attend to,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that the stress and impact on our emergency management system has diminished.”

In the years before the alcohol ban on the beach, Bowen said he would have to have as many medics as possible in service and stationed along the beach. There was a delicate balance to not overworking staff while still being able to have enough people to respond to the massive number of calls coming from beach for fights and alcohol-related medical issues. The increased demand drew heavily on resources, which made it difficult when medical emergencies occurred in other parts of the county, Bowen said.

“For many of them, the reason they became paramedics was to save lives,” he said. “The more mayhem, the less they were able to do what they felt in their heart they were called to do.”

Like many other emergency personnel in Bay County, Bowen cited a 2015 house party shooting that hospitalized seven people with gunshot wounds as the culmination of mayhem on the beach.

“That was huge for us,” Bowen said. “It went as well as it could go, and we’re proud of how we handled that. But Spring Break got to the point it was unmanageable.”

Bowen said many nights they would need several extra trucks to run patients from the beach to hospital. EMTs still keep an eye out for large events and add more trucks and staff when required. But on the ground, medics are seeing positive changes, Bowen added.

“We’re pleased from the medical response standpoint,” he said. “We feel safer, and we feel like the public is safer.”

Source:  Panama City News Herald

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