- Associated Press
Sunday, October 4, 2020

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) - In one hand Salvatore Scarpa held a premature infant. With his other hand he gave the newborn chest compressions.

It was an early spring morning in the late 1990s, in North Kansas City, Missouri, where the young medic cradled the two-pound child in his hands as he walked to an ambulance, the parents trailing behind him. The father held back the distraught mother, telling her to let the rescue crew do its job.


The child was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Three decades later, after Sal Scarpa’s climb up the leadership ladder led him to Columbus, Georgia, to be the city’s new fire chief, he remembered that call - not because he couldn’t save the child, but because the parents still were so thankful.

“All of our folks tried so hard for that little child, and we comforted that family as best we could,” he said. “And they were so appreciative, so thankful. Here they are going through this traumatic, tragic event, and they kept lauding praises on our personnel.”

It taught him that responding to the call makes the difference, whether you make the rescue or not: What mattered most was that the parents were not alone, helpless, abandoned to their distress.

“I felt like, you know, somebody needed to be there for that family,” he said. “Somebody needed to provide that service, provide that support…. Had we not been there, nobody would have been there to try.”

BEING THERE

Now in charge of medics and firefighters, Scarpa didn’t set out to be either. When he was a kid in Brooklyn, New York, he wanted to be a cop. He’s not sure why.

When he was in eighth or ninth grade, his family moved to East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Meadowlands where the New York Giants play. Scarpa later went to work for AT&T; Capital Services there.

That’s where he learned what it’s like to feel helpless when someone needs help.

A coworker had a seizure. Scarpa didn’t know what to do, but another colleague did, and rushed over to render aid.

“It was that moment where I said, ‘How did you learn to do that? Where did you learn those skills?’” he recalled.

“I’m a volunteer at my local emergency squad, and I’m an EMT,” the colleague replied.

“And I said, ‘I want to learn how to do that. That was really cool,’” Scarpa said Wednesday, as he sat for a Ledger-Enquirer interview in a conference room at the Columbus Public Safety Center.

So he trained to be an emergency medical technician, joined the local volunteer rescue squad, and started looking for a job in emergency medical services.

Soon after that his extensive family started moving west, to the Kansas City area. Scarpa said he has four siblings, but, “beyond that, I have about 10,000 cousins, aunts and uncles.”

He told his relatives he’d move west if he got a job as a firefighter and medic, and he did, in 1995, in North Kansas City, the place where he later tried, and failed, to save a premature infant.

So he trained to be an emergency medical technician, joined the local volunteer rescue squad, and started looking for a job in emergency medical services.

UP THE RANKS

Scarpa got an associate’s degree from Metropolitan Community College and a bachelor’s in public administration from Park University, both in Kansas City, and got his master’s online from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.

Meanwhile he worked his way up through the ranks of the North Kansas City fire department, rising to captain and then to battalion chief, before he was recruited in 2013 to become the deputy chief in Shawnee, a Kansas City suburb across the Missouri River in Kansas.

North Kansas City was kind of like Columbus, once an old mill town that kept to itself, he said. Shawnee was a wealthier bedroom community. Both were within the same metropolitan area.

Why did he choose to leave Shawnee for Columbus?

“Quite honestly, this is a great opportunity,” he said. “I was at the point in my career where I was limited in my growth opportunities in Shawnee, and I was looking across the country for opportunities.”

He saw the job posting for Columbus, and thought his experience would be a good fit.

Recruited by the search firm The Mercer Group, whom the city hired to find a replacement for retired Columbus Chief Jeff Meyer, Scarpa was nominated by Mayor Skip Henderson and approved by Columbus Council on July 28.

He since has settled into his new job, and new home, in a radically different environment.

He won’t miss snow, he said. Among the differences in firefighting down here and up there in Kansas City is winter, when calls increased, fire engines slid around on ice, and hoses froze “like popsicles” if the water stopped flowing, so they had to be loaded onto trailers and hauled inside to thaw.

“People don’t shovel their hydrants like they’re supposed to, so you have to find a hydrant when you need one,” he said. “So those become challenges, and certainly long-term operations in cold weather are taxing, both on personnel and equipment…. I’m looking forward to not having that ever again.”

He’s 51 now, with two sons ages 17 and 26. The older son Justin is a welder, the younger son John is staying back in the Midwest to finish high school. His interest is in business, the father said.

When he’s not working, the chief likes to get outside and hike on area trails, the RiverWalk and Fall Line Trace here in Columbus, the Pine Mountain Trail in Harris County and the trails at Providence Canyon in Lumpkin.

LOOKING AHEAD

Next year will mark Scarpa’s 30th in a profession that has changed dramatically since he started.

“We use technology today way more than we ever did, just throughout the fire service,” he said. The vehicles, the firefighting gear, the communications systems, all are far more sophisticated now.

“The fire service traditionally is 100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress, right?” he joked. “But that is changing, and it’s certainly not the case here in Columbus. We’re more progressive than most.”

The firefighting “mindset” has shifted from reacting to emergencies to preventing them, he said. Fire prevention, through mitigation measures such as safety regulations, sprinkler systems and smoke alarms, and through public education about household risks, has been so effective that fire calls have declined.

But as fire alarms decreased, emergency medical calls filled the gap.

“Better than 70% of our calls are medical in nature, and that has not always been the case,” the chief said. Crews once got “a pretty good mix” of fires and medical emergencies, but the balance shifted in the 1980s and 1990s, he said.

That’s a challenge fire departments should approach in much the same way they handled fire prevention, he said.

For example, if a station continually gets calls to aid someone injured by falls, the medics should find out why, he said. Perhaps the problem is an elderly resident’s home has hazards such as steps without grab bars to grasp, or an edge on the bathroom shower that the person trips over.

Fix those hazards, and you prevent the falls, he said: “With the bulk of the calls being EMS, that’s really where we need to focus our attention.”

City fire departments don’t offer free home renovations, but they can partner with agencies that do, he said: “There are services that do that, and we need to connect our citizens with those services.”

Scarpa also recommended people who are not in a life-threatening emergency reconsider calling an ambulance, because that service can cost them hundreds of dollars that insurance or government benefits may not cover.

If they can find other transportation - a bus, a taxi, a friend who can drive them to the hospital - then they can avoid that burden, he said. Arriving at the emergency room in an ambulance, for a routine medical call, doesn’t get the patient seen by a doctor any sooner, he said.

But if people choose to call 911, a rescue crew will respond. As Scarpa learned when he was starting out in North Kansas City, responding makes the difference.

“That really kind of hit home for me,” he said, remembering the newborn he held that morning and the parents who so profusely thanked him, though he could not save the child.

“This is why this is important,” he thought then. “This is why this job is important. We’re part of the community, to render aid when they don’t know who else to call.”


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