Medical transportation is a key aspect in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. All across the country, EMTs are assisting with overflow at hospitals, bringing patients to and from various facilities, and putting themselves at risk for the sake of others.
We recently spoke with Joe Borer, On Time's Vice President of North Operations, to find out more the impact this virus has had on EMS operations in New Jersey, how their team stays motivated during the crisis, and their plans for the future.
Here's what we learned about some of the heroes at On Time.
We understand that On Time has transported over 2,000 COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. What does this milestone mean to you?
It’s not as easy as putting a patient on a stretcher and going to the location. Patients that are positive for COVID-19 as well as patients under medical surveillance need to be transported. Whether it was going to a residence or a FEMA setup hospital (they had one in Secaucus, Edison, Atlantic City, etc.), we would transport to those facilities when there was overflow and the hospitals couldn’t handle it.
How did your team prepare before the virus hit New Jersey?
We didn’t know what the patient count would be because when it first started, it was New York City that was getting hit the most. We treated it like a storm in New York. The clouds were coming in and heading to New Jersey. How did we get ready for it? We reached out to the county colleges and vendors for personal protective equipment (PPE). We received a huge donation from Union County College after receiving a call from their president.
We also cleared the office. Stu Maslow (Director of Communications & Business Development) and Chris Byrd (Director of Logistics & Communications) gave people computers, brought equipment in, and ensured the phone systems were working at their houses. We had one night dispatcher here at the office so no one would get exposed.
Staffing plans had to be changed. There were six to eight new hire EMTs coming in every week who were on-boarded virtually. Having field leadership training and deploying them was a mission in itself. We made sure our mechanics were safe in other buildings with PPE and cleaning the trucks correctly. All of this had to be placed on top of our normal duties. I always say, “stay the course.”
What were some challenges On Time faced during that time? How did your team overcome them?
One of our biggest hurdles, which was a full-time job, was PPE. Getting our hands on N95 masks, gloves, gowns, safety goggles, on top of finding the appropriate disinfectants in order to "decon" our vehicles at the end of every call. This takes up to a half an hour to do and was very hard to accomplish.
Another is the fear the EMTs had of getting sick even when they wear the proper PPE. It had to be discussed. We talked to the EMTs on how to make sure to use your proper PPE, wearing it all the time, wearing gloves, and good hand washing techniques. We even went as far down as doing hand washing training. It wasn’t just putting a memo out on washing your hands. No. We went one-by-one, had a training form for it, and everyone washed their hands. We made them demonstrate to us how they wash their hands as well. We went off a list of what needed to be accomplished and everyone understood that proper hand washing needed to be ensured.
We actually shut down our office. There was a skeleton crew inside --- but it was very limited. We kept everyone out of our crew rooms and went into a lockdown mode. Employees that entered the building would go through a screening process where they would get their temperatures checked, get asked a series of questions, and this would be done at the beginning and end of each shift.
We also had the ability to get our hands on P100 masks, the "hard mask" half-face respirators. We were very happy to get a donation of about 60 units. We were also able to purchase about $4,000 worth of P100 masks and deploy them out into the field. It’s easier to breathe than the N95 mask, the crews like them better, they provide a little higher sense of security if they are around an individual who has COVID-19, and it’s physically more secure than a N95 mask.
Price gouging was another challenge. The normal price of a gown is $0.38/piece. The normal price of a N95 mask is $1.69. The normal price of a surgical mask is $0.35. Gowns jumped up to eight dollars. If the N95 masks were able to be found, it jumped up to $2,000/case (almost $25/mask), and surgical masks were priced $3.50/piece. Luckily, we were able to keep the original costs by networking and not have to succumb to buying PPE at those prices. There were also companies that jumped up to help us such as V E Ralph & Son Inc, Uniform States of America, Bound Tree, and Medline Industries who are still keeping us at our rates.
What are some key takeaways you learned as a company throughout this time?
At the end of the day, we did the best we could and we learned a lot. We learned we can’t rely on certain vendors because the demand was just too great for them and couldn’t keep up with our needs. We learned that we have to look outside the box as it relates to equipment and have different avenues to explore. We learned as a team that we’ve grown closer through this because at any given time, anyone of us could’ve been sick. We kept it going with daily COVID-19 calls. We figured out where to go and handled it like a team would. All hands on deck.
How did your leadership help the front line workers combat COVID-19?
It wasn’t “get out there and pick up those patients.” I myself transported over 20 COVID-19 patients in the field assisting crews because they needed to know their leader respects them. The leader is not just going to dictate. They’re going to be in the trenches with everybody.
We ensured they had everything they needed, but we also followed up with individuals who were out showing some symptoms. We checked on them every day.
I’m so glad that we have a great team; the staff, the field supervisors, they all worked hard in the north and south divisions. Everyone gave their all.
What is On Time planning to do going forward?
We are planning for a second wave just in case it does come. So we’re not stopping our stockpiling, monitoring it very closely at our hospitals, watching census on a daily basis, and monitoring health reports from the Department of Health. We are interacting with our medical director and OEMS officials on a regular basis as well as all the CEOs. We’re speaking to the department heads of these hospitals, in the event of a second wave of how we’ll handle it.
Overall, it has been a long three months. But if we didn’t have the people we have, it would’ve been 20 times harder. We are blessed to have the people that we have in this company. I thank them every day for what they do and will never forget what they’ve done during this time.
Are there any COVID-19 transport calls you’d like to share?
This is going to be a spinoff about EMT Ramon Lizardo who also works at Robert Wood Johnson EMS as a 911 Dispatcher. I sent him and his wife, Carmen Lizardo, on a trip to RWJ University Hospital Somerset. She also works here at On Time as an EMT and at Meadowlands Hospital EMS in Secaucus, NJ. I sent them to pick up a corrections officer patient who was on a ventilator for over 30 days, made an extreme comeback, and was being transferred to a rehabilitation facility for therapy at Kessler in Marlton, NJ.
Ramon said to me, “Joseph, I want you to know that I got a little bit of hope yesterday.”
Ramon Lizardo (left) & Joe Borer (center) in an undated photo
I call Ramon and Carmen the dynamic duo because at the end of the day, they work two jobs, push themselves to the max to make a good living for their family through a pandemic, and they never said no to helping.
(Pictured here is Carmen & Ramon Lizardo)
How were you able to keep employee morale up throughout the pandemic?
The first few calls were a little rocky. I’m not going to lie, I was scared. My wife has a bad respiratory history and I have my 80-year-old mother to take care of. There is the unknown of, am I going to get sick going on these calls.
But I think displaying calm leadership is extremely important. We explained that it is not unlike transporting a patient with MRSA, for example. As long as you don your PPE appropriately, and you use the right equipment, you will be okay. We tried to not only support them, but also go out on the road with them.
There are also people who work on the backend of this that keeps everything moving. Our dispatchers, call takers, and billers who are killing it from home right now. They are just as important as those people walking through the door. Without them, the work won’t be coming in and the billing won’t be going out. I always call it a big wheel because in the center is where the spokes come out and everything attaches to itself. It needs to be a well-oiled machine. Not everything is done in the field. I can’t comment how proud I am of the team from those departments. They turned their houses into an office overnight. They’re heroes too.
We saw there was an On Time Front Line Appreciation BBQ. Can you tell us how that went?
We had a great turnout. We had a little rain in Roselle. Everyone ate all the food. We cooked over 180 burgers and 200 hotdogs. The best part about it is, it only cost us $100 to do it for the whole company.
We reached out to our vendors and got a lot of support from them. We also reached out to high-end hamburger maker in East Rutherford, NJ, Schweid & Sons, who donated over $600 worth of burgers. It was beautiful. We also received financial donations from our vendors and it was impressive to get that support.
There was also a donation of chef apparel who embroidered the On Time logo free of charge-- which is why you’ll see us wearing the uniforms in the BBQ photos. Everybody stepped up and I don’t want that to be forgotten. What the first responders, nurses, and doctors did to fight, we can’t forget that. It’s important they get the praise that they deserve.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The sisterhood and brotherhood that we had during this time can’t be replicated anywhere else. Thank you to the community for the generous gestures and donations to help us through it. And a big, big, thank you to our team for crushing it and making it happen. It speaks volumes. Whether you were in an ambulance or office, you made a difference. We honestly can’t thank everyone enough.