Fast-acting, student-run MERT is on call for medical emergencies

Penn’s student-run Medical Emergency Response Team, or MERT, has voluntarily served the University City community since its inception 10 years ago.

When a call is made to Penn’s emergency number (215-573-3333) and medical attention is requested, MERT crew members on specially equipped bicycles are sent out to perform basic life support until an ambulance arrives. MERT crews, which have an average response time of about five minutes, work directly with the Penn Police Department and the Philadelphia Fire Department.

“We’ve responded to things like pedestrian-cyclist collisions, seizures, psychiatric emergencies, and burn victims,” says MERT’s Chief Hannah Peifer, a junior African studies and biology major. “In all the years MERT’s been around, it’s even delivered a baby.”

MERT’s headquarters is in the basement of Butcher Dormitory at Ware College House, where it moved to in 2010 from Sansom Place East. The MERT crews—typically four on a shift—operate from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday through Thursday and continually from Friday evening to Monday morning.

There is a TV and couch in the lounge, four sets of bunk beds, and an occasional lunch-eater among those working in the study area. Aside from a room packed with medical equipment, it’s much like a typical club hangout on a college campus. That’s done with intent.

“We are a big family, we’re all friends,” says Peifer. “But at the same time, we are professionals, and that’s how we present ourselves to the community and to our patients.”

All 50 of MERT’s current active members are highly trained, each having completed a 150-hour emergency medical technician (EMT) class. They have also received multiple certifications, including incident command, hazardous material awareness, and CPR.

“We’re constantly preparing, too,” says sophomore biochemistry major Brett Bell, MERT’s disaster response team officer. For instance, all the MERT members will soon complete a two-day training to prepare for Spring Fling.

On standby at large events, including the Penn Relays, Hey Day, and Penn’s Commencement, is MERT’s special response unit—a trailer stocked with necessary equipment in case of a large-scale incident. MERT received the unit last spring, due in large part to the efforts of Eugene Janda, chief of Fire and Emergency Services at the Division of Public Safety. (Janda, one of MERT’s advisers, recently received the Collegiate EMS Adviser of the Year Award from the National Collegiate Emergency Medical Services Foundation.)

The Penn community is invited to check out the special response unit at MERT’s third annual First Aid Festival on Friday, April 1, from 2 to 5 p.m. on College Green (Houston Hall if it rains).

MERT is bringing some CPR manikins and some AEDs—automated external defibrillators—that people will be able to practice with, too. There will be information on MERT’s partner organizations, including Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services and Student Health Service, as well as similar student EMT groups from Temple and Drexel.

“The First Aid Festival’s overarching goal is to provide information to the community about what we do, and how we can help you, and what you can do to help yourselves and others,” says Bell. “And that’s information you can take with you off campus. That’s a lifelong thing.”