News Commentary

GERMS: Overworked, overcommitted, and underpaid

September 20, 2021

An ambulance with a deflated tire. Illustration by Deborah Han

Thousands of Georgetown students returned to campus in full force this fall, but when in need, many face limited access to emergency services. 

Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service (GERMS) announced that their new hours would only include Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. starting August 21. The notable decrease in service from the pre-pandemic schedule of 24 hours every day of the week has led many students to be concerned about accessing affordable emergency medical services. These dire circumstances highlight the importance of the organization to campus life and reveal how Georgetown University fails to adequately compensate students for their time and effort.

GERMS is a fundamental resource on campus. Their free services mean that any student taken to the hospital by GERMS will not be charged for the transportation as they might with a city ambulance, which normally ranges from $428 to $735 depending on the level of care; they may still incur charges from services provided at the hospital. 

The service is well-known for its extremely fast response time assisting the Georgetown community. According to Ashley Rensted (COL ’22), GERMS’s vice president of staff, their response time is typically less than 5 minutes, although pandemic protective precautions may add a minute or 2. 

Students calling GERMS benefit from the university’s medical amnesty policy, which states that students who call GERMS are exempt from disciplinary action for violations relating to the university’s drug and alcohol policies. This removes important barriers for students calling for medical assistance for underage drinking or other drug-related offenses. 

Despite the necessity of the service on campus, GERMS has been unable to recruit enough trained members to continue to provide comprehensive 24/7 service due to the pandemic. GERMS is staffed completely by voluntary student workers, all of whom receive specialized training before they begin to work shifts. “GERMS’s structure is dependent on having members who are qualified to serve as drivers and crew leaders, and both of these positions require comprehensive internal training processes,” Rensted wrote in an email to the Voice

While each shift needs both a crew leader and a driver, of GERMS’s 54 members, currently only three are qualified to be crew leaders and three to be drivers. “Unfortunately, since we were unable to return to campus for the 2020-2021 school year, we weren’t able to train any members for these roles,” Rensted wrote. “Much of the promotional process has in-person requirements, such as clinical experience and driver training tasks in the ambulance.”

This lack of trained members led GERMS to announce that they cannot hire and train any new members this fall. While they hope to expand their hours by late September or early October, Rensted emphasized there is no guarantee that expansion will be possible by then. 

When GERMS is not in service, the GERMS phone number redirects to Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD) who connect students to the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (FEMS). While FEMS has a similar medical amnesty program, they differ greatly from GERMS in their response times and pricing.

Pace Schwarz (COL ’23), a student and an emergency medical technician trained at George Washington University, encountered FEMS’ long wait time first-hand when his friend experienced a medical emergency on August 21.

“While dancing, my [friend] dislocated her left knee,” Schwarz said. “She was in immense pain.” While Schwarz and another friend present were both trained EMTs, they were unable to provide immediate care due to the nature of the injury and recognized that she needed to be transported to the hospital. Within a few minutes, GUPD officers arrived to take a statement. About 12 minutes after the call, about four FEMS paramedics arrived, but they came without an ambulance and their only equipment was a trauma bag. When Schwarz asked why the paramedics could not move his friend, they were told they had to wait for an ambulance traveling from across town in southeast D.C. Schwarz’s best estimate of the time that they waited for the ambulance was 15 to 20 minutes.

The fact that the ambulance had to come from a call in southeast D.C. highlights the importance of GERMS in supplementing D.C.’s ambulance capabilities. FEMS’s response times are lower than GERMS, with data from this year indicating that 75 percent of high priority and above calls were responded to in less than 9 minutes. 

When Georgetown handles its own medical emergencies in-house, pressure is relieved from D.C. ambulance backup as a whole. Ambulance wait times vary by location, with longer wait times east of the Anacostia River—especially in Ward 7. These regions, which are notably majority Black communities, already face devastating health disparities compared to other D.C. communities like Georgetown. 

Additionally, FEMS is not as familiar with Georgetown’s campus as the students working in GERMS, which can impact calls placed from locations that are difficult to access by vehicle, like the Henle apartments. 

FEMS also presents financial problems for students on campus, placing expensive price tags on short trips. No matter how far the trip, even if a student is merely going 500 meters to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital from campus, patients are charged large flat fees. This has led some students to turn to Uber and other rideshare services to get to hospitals, following a larger national trend of the same phenomenon. 

Olivia Henry (COL ’24) became one such student after she suffered a medical injury that limited her ability to walk during the second summer session in early August while GERMS was not in service. She waited for the injury to heal, but after a few days, she realized she needed to get medical assistance.

“Because MedStar was so close, I thought that would be my best option,” she said in an interview with the Voice. “I asked GUPD, ‘How can I get myself to MedStar because I cannot walk? All of my friends are off-campus, so what am I supposed to do?’” She was told that her only option was to get an ambulance, which would come with a charge.

Henry eventually decided to take an Uber to the hospital which, despite its close proximity, cost $10. “If I couldn’t afford the Uber, I don’t know what position I would’ve been in,” Henry said. “It shouldn’t have had to be that students are in that position of privilege [to pay for an Uber] to get to the hospital, and that is what GERMS is meant to be there for.” 

Even with the ability to hail an Uber, the journey to the hospital was far from easy. Henry remarked how she had to “hobble” with a friend of a friend for over 20 minutes to get to the front gates. At one point during the walk to the front gates, they tried to call facilities to see if they could hitch a ride in a golf cart, but they were told this wouldn’t be possible. 

“It was one of those situations where it would have been nice if there was some sort of other scaffolding while GERMS was not in service, if there at least had been something in place that could get me from point A to point B,” Henry said. 

Once in her Uber, the driver had trouble finding the entrance to the emergency room. “The entrance for in-patient care is somewhat hidden, so you have to know the area going in to understand where the ER is,” Henry said. “It took us an additional 20 to 30 minutes.”

GERMS is a critically essential service. It provides fast and free care to all students while alleviating pressure from D.C.’s overworked emergency medical services. Without full access to GERMS, students could continue to be put in potentially life-threatening situations. Despite this, the student workers at GERMS are unpaid and receive no form of academic credit for their training.

A closer examination of GERMS’s funding shows that Georgetown perceives this care as a privilege to receive rather than a right. According to Rensted, GERMS is partially funded through revenue made from standbys and EMT training courses. 

“[The university also] contributes funding for necessary purchases as well as contributes to the funding of [GERMS] ambulances,” Rensted wrote. However, Georgetown simultaneously charges GERMS rent for the use of their office space.

The necessity of GERMS to raise its own money and its inability to pay students creates prohibitive conditions for those potentially interested in volunteering. For example, the GERMS EMT course costs $850, and while financial aid is available for low-income students, many still pay a hefty charge just for the ability to work for GERMS. 

The opportunity cost of working for free cannot be ignored as, for many students, time spent volunteering is time where they could be at a paying job or studying for classes. Additionally, students do not receive credit for their training, while students at other universities such as George Washington University receive credit for comparable training.

“Everyone in this organization, especially current crew chiefs, executive board members, and those pursuing promotion to crew leader and driver positions, is working extremely hard, some of us 25+ hours a week, for no compensation, to serve our community, and bring back GERMS to what it was before,” Rensted wrote. 

There may be no immediate fix to help increase GERMS’s hours of operation, yet there are many ways that Georgetown can relieve the stress and unfair conditions GERMS workers face. The university can stop charging GERMS for their rental space and pay for students’ training and provide academic credit for students who put in the extraordinary effort to become the EMTs that keep us safe. Other options for compensation could include providing students with discounted meal plans, laundry service, or other benefits.  

It is Georgetown’s responsibility to provide this service for the Georgetown community, but this does not mean they ought to exploit free labor. A willingness to perform a service for free does not justify withholding pay. That same logic has been used to pay people below a living wage simply because they have no other alternatives. In the spirit of “People for Others,” Georgetown must take steps to recognize and compensate the labor of GERMS staff working for the wellbeing of their classmates. 

Alec Weiker
Alec Weiker is a senior studying in the SFS. He believes that the only borders that ever mattered was the book store. RIP.

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