When University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Police responds to a medical call, you might notice two or three students in bright orange hoodies accompanying them.
These students are part of the Emergency Medical Response Group (EMRG), volunteers that provide first aid and emergency assistance to students, faculty and visitors on campus, 24/7, while regular classes are in session.
"Campus Police are responsible for the safety and security of the scene," says Brandon Au, EMRG volunteer and fourth-year human biology student. "Where we come in is being more readily trained to provide medical, and recently, mental health first aid."
Since its official launch in 2005, EMRG has treated over a thousand people. The group's existence as a student-run and student-resourced emergency response team sets it apart. They have what alum and EMRG co-founder Blair Bigham says is a privileged position – that students often feel more comfortable calling fellow students before they reach out to other sources.
"At that age and in that environment, students might not feel able to go to their family doctor or hospital when dealing with a personal issue," says Bigham. "The peer-to-peer emergency response services that EMRG offers is incredibly valuable."
At full strength, EMRG is made up of 51 student volunteers. Forty-six volunteers take roughly four shifts a month, while five make up the executive team, running communications, finances, operations, human resources, and the executive team as a whole, while also serving as responders.
Every recruit goes through an interview day, and intense training that Au says prepares students to put what they've learned into action.
"Getting a first aid certificate is a valuable first step, but to actually respond to a real medical scenario or emergency is quite different - the stress is different, and it makes you do funny things if you're not prepared for it," says Au. "In our training, we prepare you, so that when you're on a real call, you will have the resilience and calmness to respond effectively and be beneficial."
"In our training, we prepare you, so that when you're on a real call, you will have the resilience and calmness to respond effectively and be beneficial," says Au.
The program is competitive and high standards exist for trainees. Every year a waiting list of potential recruits is inevitable.
Students from all studies are encouraged to apply, but most volunteers are pursuing degrees in life sciences or are enrolled in the Paramedicine Joint Program with Centennial College. Some who are already working paramedics are completing courses at U of T Scarborough, offer valuable expertise to fellow campus responders.
EMRG as it exists today benefits from the hard work of Bigham and fellow U of T Scarborough alum Jaclyn Day, who worked to create a group that had an optimal operational design, constitution, terms of reference and policy and procedural manuals with the support of campus leadership.
"It took us a year and a half to get EMRG off the ground, and it was because we had to think strategically through all these types of things," says Bigham.
As a high school student, Bigham participated in a Toronto Emergency Medical Services club, which he says was essentially an EMRG for the city of Toronto. It was through this work that he became aware of The Association of Campus Emergency Response Teams of Canada (ACERT), an organization focused on supporting and promoting Canadian campus emergency teams.
ACERT hosts two conferences a year where young people across Canada, including this year’s U of T Scarborough EMRG, gather to learn from each other and participate in first aid competitions.
It was at one of those conferences that Bigham decided he would participate in the emergency response team at U of T Scarborough - except when he arrived in 2003 he was shocked to learn one did not exist.
"U of T was an outlier, almost every university in Canada at that point had one," says Bigham. "So, since an emergency response team didn't exist, I decided to start one up," says Bigham.
Today, EMRG at U of T Scarborough is one of the 26 national emergency campus response teams recognized by ACERT. Although Campus Police is their main on-campus collaborator, the group also reports to an advisory board made up of the Department of Student Life, Campus Security, Finance and Toronto Emergency Medical Service (EMS) with whom "many of our alumni go on to work with," says EMRG Executive Director Danny MacKeigan.
Through EMRG, alumni have developed critical thinking and communications skills that Bigham says is due to its continuous experiential learning environment.
"People involved in EMRG learn through doing," says Bigham who's resume includes resident physician at McMaster University, Ornge flight paramedic and multimedia journalist. "I look back and trace a lot of that to my lived experiences with EMRG."
Students looking for on-duty volunteers can often find them at EMRG's base of operations in Bladen Wing BV-306 – a small workspace with two sets of bunk beds, first aid gear, radios and box of incident reports.
"These students live in a small office through the school year, and they live there to protect their peers," says Bigham. "It's a pretty phenomenal thing."
To contact the Emergency Response Group (EMRG) at U of T Scarborough about a medical emergency, call 647-544-EMRG (3674). The team can also be reached via email at email@example.com, and the website is emrgatutsc.com. The main office is located in the Bladen Wing in BV-306. EMRG runs while fall and winter classes are in session.