Penn’s Medical Emergency Response Team, ‘prepared for anything’

The student-run organization, which includes nearly 70 undergraduates who are licensed EMTs, complements the Division of Public Safety and Philadelphia Fire Department by responding to medical emergencies on campus.

the mert team gathering in front of vagelos
Members of the student-run Medical Emergency Response Team, MERT, prepare to respond to a mock mass casualty incident on campus. Rigorous trainings keep these student EMTs’ knowledge and skills up-to-date. 

On a brisk Sunday morning in October, a normally quiet grassy area outside the Chemistry Laboratories on Penn’s campus was filled with shrill cries. 

“Can anyone help me?!”

“It burns!” 

“I can’t hear out of this ear!!” 

Dozens of emergency workers jogged purposefully in and out of the lab building, some carrying backboards, others checking medical records, and still others triaging distressed students.

The pleas for help and bustling emergency workers would have been cause for alarm—had they not been part of a simulation intended to provide training for the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), a student-run service organization that provides emergency medical services to the Penn community. Begun in 2006, MERT is on call from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. weeknights and 24 hours on weekends, responding to needs in concert with the Division of Public Safety (DPS) and the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD). MERT is also supported by the Undergraduate Assembly, the Fox Leadership Program, and Student Health Service.

The simulated mass casualty incident, which mimicked the fallout from a mock explosion and chemical fire in two laboratories, involved 42 student EMTs, 44 volunteer victims, as well as observers from DPS and PFD. It’s just one way that MERT goes above and beyond to serve the campus community, says Joshua Glick, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, MERT’s medical director, and a MERT alum.

“These students have taken it upon themselves to have essentially a full-time job on top of being an undergraduate student, which is a tremendous amount of work, it’s a tremendous amount of energy,” he says. “Being a student undergoing a medical emergency—which can be really scary—there’s something comforting about seeing your peers responding to you and helping you.”

Trained and ready

An interest in medicine is what draws many members of MERT to participate. But becoming involved with MERT is not something Penn students do on a whim. To join requires an internal application process after which members who aren’t already licensed must obtain certification as an EMT, either externally or through a semester-long training course sponsored by the group. 

mert simulation smith walk
The mass casualty incident exercise simulated a chemical lab explosion and fire. MERT members worked in teams to triage volunteer “patients.”

Emily Kopp, a senior neuroscience and economics double major in the College of Arts and Sciences from Scarsdale, New York, who now serves as MERT’s chief, took the course in the spring of her first year at Penn. “Me and about 15 or 20 other freshmen and sophomores would spent eight hours every Saturday learning materials, practicing skills,” she says. “By the end of the semester we were ready to take our licensing exams.”

Learning is a continual focus for MERT. Weekly “general body meetings” allow members to maintain and improve skills in particular areas. Additional formal training happens each August during New Student Orientation, helping the EMTs brush up on competencies, including how to navigate their MERT-issued bikes around campus with up to 30 pounds of emergency equipment attached. Once each semester they strive to hold a mass casualty simulation. And during shifts, crews debrief after each call.

“We talk about what we did well, what we didn’t do well, what we need to work on, lingering questions, sometimes difficult emotions,” says Kopp.

These students have taken it upon themselves to have essentially a full-time job on top of being an undergraduate student, which is a tremendous amount of work, it’s a tremendous amount of energy. Joshua Glick, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine and MERT’s medical director

Each MERT EMT is required to commit to 24 hours on shift each month. But many commit far more time. “You’ll find members of the board or those who are are at higher clinical ranks, like a leader or crew chief, will be taking on 40, 50, 70, up to 100-plus hours a month,” says MERT Captain Mariana Restrepo, a senior neuroscience major from Boca Raton, Florida. It’s not easy balancing it all, but doing so offers excellent time management skills—good practice for the future, she says. “I’d say 80 to 90% of us are involved in extra research, plus seeing our friends, keeping sane.”

“I think most of our friends wonder how we do it,” adds Kopp. “From the outside, it’s a lot—a lot of hours, a lot of late nights, 100% worthwhile.”

Campus asset

The MERT response zone mirrors the DPS patrol area, spanning from 30th to 43rd streets and from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue. During the team’s service hours, when an emergency call requiring medical response comes into DPS’ PennComm Operations Center, the student EMTs on duty are called into action.

“Every time they respond they are responding with the Philadelphia Fire Department and with the Penn Police, who establish a safe scene and a perimeter around the scene,” says Gene Janda, chief of fire and emergency services in DPS. MERT students then treat patients and prepare them to be transported to the hospital by the PFD.

mert students carrying patient on stretcher
 As part of their commitment to MERT, student members must work shifts 24 hours a month, though many go above and beyond that minimum

Janda, who was involved in helping students launch MERT 15 years ago, has seen the benefits of having this campus-based squad. Years ago, he recalls a student member on their way to chemistry class who helped deliver a baby. Another time, a crew assisted a student who fell through an attic floor and required careful handling to avoid further injury before being transported to the hospital.

“It could be any situation,” he says. “It could be some type of trauma, or cardiac arrest; they’re trained for it.”

Though MERT began purely as an emergency response service, the organization has since expanded in how it supports the Penn community. Beyond their shift work, MERT members now also coordinate training workshops for Penn faculty, staff, and students in CPR, first aid, “stop the bleed” injury response, and Narcan administration for opioid overdoses. Many members also do work in the community to promote health and safety.

mert students treating a patient in a lab
In addition to the medical knowledge they must master to become EMTs, MERT students also refine teamwork and leadership skills, and learn to keep a cool head in a crisis.

Kopp, whose role entails coordinating MERT’s activities with that of other partners, DPS primary among them, says that the organization works seamlessly with DPS and PFD first responders.

“We are all able to work as a team and make sure this campus is really prepared for anything,” Kopp says.

Each EMT that is part of MERT could easily point to numerous occasions when their emergency response training was put into meaningful action. For Restrepo, a particularly powerful memory is of administering Narcan to a person in the West Philadelphia community. “I walked away from that call, that patient, knowing I saved his life,” she says. “I think that was the first time I saw the direct impact of our role. We are in the community to save lives.”

Prepared for the future

Restrepo is now in the midst of applying to medical school. And Kopp, too, plans to attend, as do many MERT members. Glick offers living proof of how service with MERT can translate to a career in medicine.

“I hit the ground running in medical school,” Glick says, who often tells MERT students that the organization equips them with three intangible qualities: a sense of teamwork, great communication skills, and adaptability. “Always being comfortable in the uncomfortable,” he says, is a skill helpful both in medicine and in life.

I think most of our friends wonder how we do it. From the outside, it’s a lot—a lot of hours, a lot of late nights, 100% worthwhile. Senior Emily Kopp, MERT’s chief

That embrace of on-the-fly learning was on full display at the mass casualty training event earlier this fall. As MERT team members triaged volunteer patients complaining of head trauma and burn wounds—and one even acting out a mental health emergency—they contended with challenges they hadn’t anticipated. Despite moment of hesitation and uncertainty, the MERT students eventually ensured that all “victims” were evacuated from the labs, effectively triaged, and, where needed, transported “to the hospital” (or back to a dining hall for late-morning bagels and coffee).

To bring the simulation to a close, Lilian Zhang, MERT’s disaster response team officer, radioed to her peers, “The drill is now completed.” But the morning—and the learning—wasn’t quite over. MERT team members filed into the Chemistry building auditorium for a “hotwash,” a postmortem evaluation of their performance where DPS and other observers offered constructive feedback. 

A major takeaway, according to James Taylor, a paramedic and 26 year veteran of the PFD? MERT members took on the simulation’s challenges “with energy, zeal, and readiness. They got the job done.”

Learn more on the MERT website.

View all simulated mass casualty incident photos on Flickr.

mert students on their bikes on locust walk
Serving the same patrol zone as the Division of Public Safety, MERT acts as a partner to DPS and the Philadelphia Fire Department, responding to campus medical emergencies on evenings and weekends.