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In a rural New York town, teenagers are stepping in to fill a void as EMTs

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In many rural communities, emergency services are entirely run by volunteers. When the pandemic hit, the struggle to find and keep recruits got worse. A lot of older volunteers stepped away because of COVID-19 health concerns. Amy Feiereisel of North Country Public Radio reports on a small town in New York state where teenagers have stepped in to fill the void.

AMY FEIEREISEL, BYLINE: Sackets Harbor is a town of 1,400 on the edge of Lake Ontario. Lately, the volunteer ambulance service here has been averaging about a call a day. Twenty-year-old Grayden Brunet is the EMS captain. He manages the budget and runs the ship. He's got curly black hair and wears glasses.

GRAYDEN BRUNET: My whole time being an officer here has been COVID (laughter). So it's definitely been a learning experience.

FEIEREISEL: We're sitting in the fire station lounge. It's got a big brown leather sofa, pictures of past firefighting crews on the walls. The eight-person EMS crew, all of them under the age of 21, spends a lot of time here. The crew hasn't always been this young. When Brunet joined at age 16, he was the baby.

GRAYDEN BRUNET: And then I came here to one of the meetings, and I was like, there is no one here my age. Like, they're all a solid 20 years older than me.

FEIEREISEL: Then the pandemic hit. Brunet says a lot of the older EMTs stopped responding to calls altogether.

GRAYDEN BRUNET: We came in one day and realized we were the only ones coming in (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

GRAYDEN BRUNET: Basically.

FEIEREISEL: Three teenage boys were shouldering an almost unfathomable burden - responding to heart attacks and car accidents and suicides, transporting COVID-19 patients to the nearest city hospital. In New York, like many states, 17-year-olds can become certified EMTs. Niklas Brazie was surprised he was allowed such responsibility.

NIKLAS BRAZIE: My first call as a certified EMT was a suicide. So that kind of kind of woke me up.

FEIEREISEL: He says it was never an option for the three of them to stop running the town's ambulance, but they were also all working paid positions as firefighter EMTs nearby in bigger population centers. It got to be too much. They were constantly calling for backup ambulances from the nearest city. They felt so guilty doing that.

GRAYDEN BRUNET: It can be up to a 20-minute response time. And for someone who is in cardiac arrest, they're just not going to survive that 20 minutes.

FEIEREISEL: Then a sudden ray of hope - a whole new batch of teenagers applied to join the crew, starting with Sophia DeVito. She was 16. Her entire family had gotten COVID-19. After that, she wanted to help people.

SOPHIA DEVITO: It's someone's mother. It's someone's father. It's a grandmother. It's a parent. It's a child. Like, these are actual people's lives.

FEIEREISEL: Another four teenagers also came on board. And within months, the crew went from an exhausted three to a functional eight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Transporting to assist C (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK.

FEIEREISEL: In the fire station's garage, some of the younger crew are running an ambulance inspection.

COOPER ANTONSEN: And just write down the number of everything we have for the station upstairs.

FEIEREISEL: Sixteen-year-old Cooper Antonsen hovers over the stretcher.

ANTONSEN: I'm just checking to make sure that we have all of the adequate supplies - that are nasal cannulas, non-rebreathers.

FEIEREISEL: Watching the crew work in their neat navy uniforms, it's easy to forget their ages - until Reese Mono starts up the teasing.

REESE MONO: Nick is sort of the aunt of the family.

DEVITO: But not like...

MONO: Like, the...

DEVITO: The aunt that comes and visits once in a while.

MONO: The aunt that comes and goes - and then Dalton, the fun uncle.

(LAUGHTER)

FEIEREISEL: Several of them said they need that lightness and laughter. It helps them deal with the hard stuff. Sharing this burden has made them really close, says 16-year-old Gannon Brunet.

GANNON BRUNET: Life, death moments together - it just creates a bond that's almost inseparable. Like, you have a second family to come to. There's always people to talk to. You're never lonely here in (unintelligible) 'cause all of us are friends.

FEIEREISEL: Their school, Sackets Harbor Central, allows the 17-year-old members to leave class to go on calls because if they don't, the ambulance might not run. For NPR News, I'm Amy Feiereisel in northern New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.