Dozens of patients flood Hartford Hospital’s emergency room after a bomb detonates at the XL Center during a concert. Shortly afterwards, an explosion strikes the hospital, adding to the chaos. Thankfully, these events are only part of a mass casualty drill, one of the training activities that Michael Zacchera, NREMT-P, has his students participate in as they prepare to become Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs).
Zacchera, a paramedic with nearly three decades of experience, teaches the EMT Training Program in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. The four-credit course is offered in partnership with Hartford Hospital, where Zacchera serves as an educator for the hospital’s training hub, the Center for Education, Simulation and Innovation. Zacchera recently earned his master’s degree in educational technology from UConn’s Neag School of Education.
“We use hands-on instruction, supervised practice and observational experiences to equip students with a wealth of knowledge and skills to effectively deliver emergency care in a variety of situations,” says Zacchera. “We try to immerse students in hands-on situations whenever possible so they gain an authentic sense of the conditions of this work and pressure they might face.”
The EMT Training Program teaches students how to treat a range of emergency medical conditions. They learn to control bleeding, make splints, assess trauma and shock and manage airways. Students also learn basic life support techniques, including the use of AED devices and CPR practices to stabilize cardiac conditions and relieve respiratory complications. Students train with CPR manikins and masks, AED trainers, emergency oxygen and first aid supplies provided by Hartford Hospital.
The majority of students in the program are health and medicine majors at UConn, but the partnership with Hartford Hospital means the course is open to the public. Zacchera says he has taught local firefighters and teens enrolled in the Early College Experience program at E.O. Smith High School.
“It makes each class a diverse group of students and gives them the opportunity to work closely with one another and learn from each other,” says Zacchera.
There are also a number of UConn student instructors in the classroom, assisting students with the practical application of skills and techniques. These student instructors have completed their EMT training and some are graduates of the UConn program.
Taylor Evangelista is an allied health sciences major and works as an EMT with the Tolland Fire Department. She completed the course as a freshman in spring 2017 and has since served as a student instructor.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to teach a subject that I am passionate about in a field that I work in every day,” says Evangelista. “It allows me to share my own experiences when working with students. We teach them how to succeed in the real emergency service world by being able to think fast and make appropriate decisions.”
The program requires time spent observing and working with emergency services personnel in different settings. Students spend five hours on an ambulance ride-along and another five hours in a hospital emergency department, where they accompany a supervising nurse to perform triage, take vitals and complete other tasks. Zacchera says these experiences give students a chance to interact with patients facing a variety of conditions.
Zacchera familiarizes students with other aspects of emergency training that makes his EMT program unique. He arranges for students to see the process of extricating victims trapped in cars and an up-close look at a LIFE STAR critical care helicopter. He also has students participate in multi-agency mass casualty drills.
Students observe and participate in mock disaster exercises where agencies and emergency responders strengthen their readiness to manage injury during dangerous events. During one class, students completed a drill with local police and a SWAT Team to protect patients in a hospital during an active shooter situation. For the simulated explosion at the XL Center, students worked with the National Guard.
“Being in the company of the National Guard gave students a chance to see how a military ambulance differs from a civilian one,” says Zacchera. “They got an opportunity to see how surgery might happen in an austere environment with limited supplies and resources as medics act quickly to save lives and treat the wounded.”
“We’ve even had our students be part of a stampede for a new iPhone at an Apple Store, so they know how to deal with those types of injuries,” says Zacchera. “We try to give the students as much practical application and exposure to different scenarios as we can.”
“Mike’s commitment to engaging students by consistently putting them in realistic situations is one of the great things about how he teaches,” says Justin Pedneault, a senior UConn nursing student and student instructor for the EMT program. Pedneault became an EMT in high school and began teaching with Zacchera when he first came to UConn as a freshman in fall 2015.
“He works hard to make it as real as possible and prepare you for countless situations. Mike even has stations set up throughout the building [Koons Hall] and outside to rehearse procedures in different environments. The program goes above and beyond, while still preparing students for their certification exams,” says Pedneault.
The 190-hour course readies students for the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technician (NREMT) certification, which involves satisfactory completion of a written exam and a practical exam. The practical exam requires students demonstrate proficiency in performing procedures at six different medical stations.
Nationally, the average first-time pass rate for the certification is 64 percent. Zacchera says 85 to 95 percent of students in his course succeed their first time.
“We’re proud of our success rate for the certification,” says Zacchera. “We know our students are ready for anything.”