Chauffers to Safety

Job description: Must be able to drive at all hours; willing to search dark alleys; work well with others, sober or not

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2001

Drunks, chronics, homeless or the forgotten - whatever their name, Eddie Quinto is going to help them whether they want it or not.

He's one of eight emergency medical technicians who work on the emergency services patrol through the Juneau Recovery Hospital, a branch of city-owned Bartlett Regional Hospital.

The van, which some in the community call "the silver bullet" or "the great white hope," transports the people who are too drunk to stand and who sleep wherever they fall. They are at times the community residents most vulnerable to crime and the elements.

Quinto's job is to drive until all hours of the night, making his rounds through downtown Juneau and looking for the lost souls. They can include those who might have overdone it just this once. Or they may have been down this road so often they wave as Quinto drives by, knowing he'll be back later to pick them up, clean their messes, call their families and keep them safe.

"To do this job you have to want to help people," says Quinto, 23. "You have to have a certain amount of mental toughness. You're constantly being berated by these people. You have to be able to clean them up when they vomit or urinate all over themselves or go in their pants. ... But if we didn't come out here these people would probably die."

And chances are no one else is looking for them. Many of the people Quinto deals with are homeless or chronic alcoholics who have burned bridges with their families and have no support systems.

"Our job is to get them to a safe place," he says. "That means a place where there is a sober adult home. A lot of times that's not the case."

The first run on a recent Saturday comes at 9:30 p.m. when a caller reports a man passed out on a hillside above South Franklin Street. Quinto has been on the job since 7 p.m. and will remain on duty until 7 a.m. Sunday.

 

When he arrives he arms himself with a flashlight, radio, cell phone and breathalyzer, then ventures into the semi-darkness of the alley next to the building.

"Two EMTs were attacked this month," he says. "Nobody likes it. But you always know you can back out of the situation and try to talk them down or call (police) for back up; that's really all you can do."

Scott Fergusson, 27, another EMT on the emergency services patrol, says he won't go into a situation that looks suspicious. But the danger is minimal because 80 percent of the calls they receive are for "frequent fliers" who know him and the routine. As for weapons, Fergusson says it's common for the people he encounters to carry knives at least, because most of them camp and use knives as tools. He says the trick is to spot which battles they'll fight and which they'll walk away from.

"I do this to help me pay for college," he says. "It pays good and that's basically why I do it. It's one of the most challenging jobs in the city and not many people do it. We are alone and unarmed trying to take these people into custody, so you learn to pick your battles. If they are trying to start something with you, then they are not drunk enough to be picked up. But the people we pick up are too drunk to even pretend to fight. They can't even stand."

Jola Funderburk, head nurse for the behavioral health department at the recovery hospital, says the agency is looking into linking the EMTs' radios to the police band, which would broaden their coverage areas and get them help quickly if they need it. She says the EMTs' common sense and the current radios, which lose their signal in certain areas around town, are their only defense against a belligerent inebriate who may have a weapon.

"I think they realize they are in a dangerous profession," says Dr. Stephen Sundby, administrator for behavioral health at the recovery hospital.

There are still some places Quinto won't go alone, even after a year on the job and a lifetime of helping his father, Capt. Edward Quinto at Capital City Fire & Rescue. There are several groups of homeless who live in clandestine mini-cities beneath the city, he says. One of their dwellings is under the bridge in Cope Park.

"It's set up like you would set up your house," he says. "There's mattresses, blankets, clothes. To them it is their house and they don't want you there. And if you are there, they will defend it."

 

He says none of the EMTs and no one else to his knowledge even bothers going into one of these homeless caves such as the park or under the parking garage at Marine Park.

"The homeless outnumber us. We wouldn't even think about going in there. It's just not smart," he says.

On this Saturday night, though, he steps over a half-eaten, rain-soaked bagel, a Coke can and an empty bottle of Popov vodka as he ventures into the alley up some steep steps. He scans the area near the hillside, looking near Dumpsters and any other out-of-the-way place where the man reported could be hiding - and places certainly no man should be sleeping.

He can't find him. Another man comes out of a nearby building. This one's standing, so it's not Quinto's guy. He says he hasn't seen anyone around. But Quinto keeps looking, just to be sure.

"It's getting colder out and hypothermia is definitely a danger. Plus during bear season we have bears wandering up and down the streets," he says. "So we want to get them to a warm, dry, safe place where they can be fed."

With someone extremely intoxicated, there's a chance he or she could suddenly stop breathing, Quinto says.

If a person has consumed a large amount of alcohol it relaxes their throat muscles, says Dr. Aric Ludwig from Bartlett Regional Hospital. If the person vomits there is nothing stopping vomit from going into the lungs, which stops a person breathing, he says.

But not this time. Quinto finds the man. Slumped over, legs sprawled in front of him and leaning against a garbage can in the dark, the man, 29, is passed out.

Quinto is careful to stand to his side. He says it's common for an inebriate to get angry or belligerent, especially when it comes to taking their alcohol away.

"They see it as you're interrupting their good time. Plus, we look like the police with our black shirts and black pants," he says. "And sometimes with the homeless they don't want you to find out where they're staying."

Fergusson says he has learned not to take the four-letter epithets and belligerent banter seriously.

"I find these guys pretty funny," he says. "The key is to not take any of it personally. Chances are they won't even remember what they said in the morning. ... They aren't really talking to you anyway. They are talking to the position. They don't like that you're coming in there and dragging them off the street away from their friends and what they want to be doing."

After several minutes of trying, the inebriated man on the hillside comes into consciousness, saying he's OK. Quinto's job is to test that theory. He stands the man up as a 40-ounce beer wrapped in a paper bag falls from his wet coat. Quinto asks him if he has a safe place to go to sleep. The man mumbles incoherently and asks if Quinto's a cop. The man is a little more awake now, so Quinto gives him a breathalyzer test. He blows a 0.293. In Alaska, a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 is legally drunk for a driver.

"There really is no average but chronics will usually have around a 0.580 or 0.594," Quinto says. "But some of them can walk around like that and appear fine whereas you or I would be in danger."

Quinto asks again if the man has a safe place to go. The man gives Quinto a portion of an address and the general direction of Douglas.

On the drive, Quinto sees several people he knows because he's picked them up so often. He points to one couple and says, "They just lost their home to drinking. ... They just wanted to drink too much and they spent all their money on it instead of paying their rent. Now they're homeless."

Jan Larson, a registered nurse at the recovery hospital, says the job often is frustrating.

"It's a really hard job sometimes. Sometimes you just want to shake them. And say, 'Can't you see what you're doing to yourselves,' " she says. "But you know you can't. And they'll get help when they are ready to get help. And a lot of people don't make it. But a lot of people do ... and we'll continue to assist them."

Quinto tries the first address in Douglas the man gave him. A relative answers the door and Quinto tells him his cousin is in the car. The man at the door is not surprised. A small child comes down the stairs to examine what's going on. Quinto discusses the situation in quieter tones once the man gently tells his daughter to go back to bed.

"He knows he's not welcome here when he's drinking," the man says. "I'm sorry. But I got my kids here. I just don't want them seeing him like that."

 

Quinto says it's hard to see his clients turned away so fast, but many alcoholics burn their bridges with family members and he can't blame them.

Quinto gets in the van to tell the man the news. He doesn't take it well and begins swearing, unbuckles his seat belt and wants out, getting much too close to the double Plexiglas-and-metal divider separating him from Quinto. Finally, he gives Quinto his father's phone number.

EMTs can ask the Lemon Creek Correctional Center to place a "12-hour hold" on his clients, Quinto says. This means they are allowed to stay in a prison cell for 12 hours to sleep off the alcohol, but they are not charged with a crime.

But if they have a home, and if they are in no medical danger, Quinto says the goal is to take them there instead of a sleep-off bed at the recovery hospital or a night at the Lemon Creek prison.

After calling, Quinto finds the man's father doesn't want him when he's drunk either. This time the man is quiet. Quinto tells him he's taking him to the hospital.

The EMTs avoid telling the clients right away that they are going to jail for a night, Quinto said. Most don't like the jail, even though they aren't charged with anything. However the jail is this man's destination because Juneau Recovery Hospital doesn't have any open beds tonight.

First stop is the hospital, though. Here, staff check the man's blood-alcohol level again, make sure he is warm, monitor his pulse and breathing, and re-check him for weapons.

Guards at the jail later say they took a knife off the man. The weapon was hidden so well Quinto and the nurse missed it during their searches.

As a nurse and Quinto help the man out of the van, the nurse says they had a "bucking bronco" in the night before. It took the nurse and two security guards to restrain him. He was brought in by way of emergency patrol.

From here, Quinto's job is to wait until the nurse gives him the OK to take the man to the prison. This is usually to give the patient some more time to sober up and for the nurses to make sure it is safe for an inebriate to go to the prison, becausee it has no nursing staff on duty.

In the meantime, Quinto will do his "town check" again and wait for the 3 a.m. closing time for bars, when he gets most of his clientele.

As Quinto gets ready to leave, he checks on the man he brought in one more time. A blanket slipped off the man's arm, so Quinto covers him up again. The man wakes up briefly.

"You're not a bad man," the man says to Quinto before closing his eyes and going back to sleep.



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