‘Only in New Orleans’: Annette Sisco column for Feb. 7, 2013

To most of us, Mardi Gras is a day off, a huge party, a giant family reunion and, of course, a joyful parade.

To the paramedics who view Carnival from the back of an ambulance, it’s another kind of parade — of broken bones, trips and falls, ladder missteps and the occasional flying bead injury.

“Absolutely, we’re busier than normal,” said Susan Robinson, a paramedic and New Orleans’ Emergency Medical Service public information officer.

“We have people in from out of town, we have people who normally wouldn’t be coming into the city. … When you get that many people in a concentrated area, you have more people needing medical assistance.”

During the last 10 days of Carnival last year, EMS answered 621 calls from the parade and party zones, according to the agency’s records. That constituted a third of all calls for that period. Of those, 171 came in on Mardi Gras alone.

That’s why EMS has come to rely on teams of trained Red Cross volunteers to tend to minor injuries, leaving paramedics more time to deal with potentially serious problems like chest pains and seizures.

The Red Cross’ white tents will be set up this weekend on St. Charles Avenue at Napoleon and Washington avenues and Felicity Street. There will be another tent at Canal and Carondelet streets.

During the Endymion parade Saturday in Mid-City, Red Cross tents will be found at North Hennessey Street and Orleans Avenue, and at Carrollton Avenue and Bienville Street.

Those who bump up against Mardi Gras a little too hard can visit a tent for first aid, a bandage or an ice pack. Volunteers also monitor the EMS scanner, and three-person teams set out on foot to answer nearby calls.

“We started this three or four years ago and it’s been a tremendous help,” Robinson said. “We work really well together and they really alleviate some of that call volume for us.”

About 200 folks trained in CPR and first aid are volunteering with the Red Cross, according to Kay W. Wilkins, CEO of the Southeast Louisiana Chapter. They also provided assistance to Super Bowl crowds, she said.

Red Cross volunteers bolster the ranks of trained professionals who include A-Med Ambulance, Acadian Ambulance, Care Ambulance, East Jefferson General Hospital EMS, West Jefferson Medical Center EMS and East Baton Rouge Parish EMS, according to Jeffery Elder, of New Orleans EMS.

Huge events like the Super Bowl and Carnival mean all our first responders have to work overtime. But reassuringly, the EMS department has this routine down pat.

“We’re so used to it, with Mardi Gras,” said Robinson, who will be out on the route with the other paramedics. “The Super Bowl was four days. Mardi Gras is 10 days. We are used to dealing with large crowds and higher call volume, so we are seasoned.”

Annette Sisco is Community editor. She can be reached at (504) 432-9257.