First response training crosses borders and waters

By Alexandria Randolph

Highland Lakes Newspapers


When an American internship fell through for two Swiss EMTs while they were sitting at the New York airport, it was just good fortune that they had an international community of first responders to fall back on.

Ken Schwake, a Marble Falls Firefighter and wife Michelle, a Marble Falls Area EMS Paramedic, have made several trips to Switzerland in past years and built relationships there with other first responders.

While Dominick Imhof and Rebecca Schaer were stranded at the airport, Ken Schwake got a phone call.

“I know Dominick from Morzine, [Switzerland] but other friends contacted me for help,” he said. “The plan was to for them to do a ride-along in New York, but that fell through, so we had to cram three weeks of training into two.”

Imhof and Schaer made their way down to Marble Falls, where they are currently training with Marble Falls Fire Department and Marble Falls Area EMS. The two are doing 10 days of 12 hour shifts, and are staying with the Schwake family.

“The calls are similar,” Shaer said of Switzerland, where she works as a first responder for Rettrungsdienst STS AG. “There are lots of medical calls and also trauma.”

Schaer explained that her company has three different stations and most trauma calls are for skiing injuries in the mountains. Some of the company's coverage area is over an hour from trauma centers, she said.

“The protocols are different. Some medications are different; we have medications that you don't have, and you have medications that we don't have.”

Imhof is employed with a Air-Zermatt, a helicopter EMS company with “two bases; one helicopter for each.”

Imhoff said the majority of calls his company receives are for recreational injuries.

“The area is steep and high up in the mountains. We have skiing accidents, and in the summer, hikers and climbers who have injuries,” he said, but on occasion, the helicopters are called in to reach regular EMS calls, and other times, the helicopters can't access areas due to terrain. “There are many small villages high in the mountains that can only be reached with cables. Sometimes they have to go first by ambulance and bring the patients back to the base, and then go [to the hospital] in a helicopter.”

Schaer said that some of the major differences in emergency service in Switzerland is how many units are dispatched to calls. She said typically in her country, fire and EMS units go to calls separately unless it's a structure fire.

Part of this difference may be a difference in training levels, said Schwake.

“Here all firefighters have their EMT certification,” he said.

“In Switzerland they are allowed to do basic life support, no more,” Schaer said.

On major similarity is the culture on the job, she said.

“We all have the same job, we just speak a different language,” she said.

“We have the same sense of humor, the same problems,” Imhof added. “It's cool to see how familiar all these guys are.”

While the culture of Texas is different that Swiss culture, the two agree that every area is uniquely defined by history and geography. They experienced the annual lawnmower races at Sweet Berry Farm last Saturday.

“It was so much fun,” Schaer said. “Because of the landscape, the lifestyle is different. Every area has something special. In my area of Switzerland, we have the fighting cows. There's no baseball, but we have the Schwingen,” which she explained is a traditional form of wrestling.

Schaer and Imhof said after all is said and done, they hope that more Swiss paramedics get to do ride-alongs in Marble Falls.

“I got to train in Switzerland with rescue classes. The job is still the same,” Schwake said. “It's really fun to watch everyone come together as a team.”

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