During the tumultuous 1968 riots, a few dedicated Columbians organized a ragtag crew of untrained medical volunteers. When an angry suspended student shot the dean of Columbia College four years later, the small team mobilized and rushed him to St. Luke’s Hospital. The dean recovered, and the students became campus legends. CAVA was born. To transport patients, the life savers refurbished an old station wagon with a light and rotating piece of paper for a siren. Fast forward 40 years: CAVA (officially CU-EMS) owns a $150,000 ambulance.

Bwog finally got to talk to CAVA director and superman incarnate Alex Harstrick, CC’12, after two emergencies whisked him away. (Oh, and he’s an ambulance driver, rescue diver and ski patroller. Yes, we feel inadequate too). We’re embarrassed to admit we had our own misconceptions about CAVA (It really is free!!). Below, we clarify some things.

  • CAVA isn’t just the older brother you call to pick you up when you’re shwasted and sprawled on street. Only 15% of all calls are alcohol related. That said, if you’re drunk and fall on your head, CAVA wouldn’t consider that a pure alcohol case. But they still handle cardiac arrests, strokes and the like. “A lot of times people will think, ‘I don’t want to call FDNY, I’ll call CAVA’ They don’t see the two as being synonymous,” Alex explains. Three EMTs drop everything to attend to whatever you need. If you decide after CAVA checks you out that you don’t want to go to the hospital, then that’s fine. But if you never intended to go to the hospital in the first place, then you shouldn’t call an ambulance service.
  • You can be CAVA’d as many times as you want without paying. “I’ve taken people more than five times, Alex says, “we will never charge you.”
  • Last weekend, they got twenty calls, up from their average 16 per weekend. And CAVA responds faster than any other EMS agency in New York City. “We got a call while we were in the middle of another call,” Alex remembers, “so they dispatched FDNY because it was relatively serious—a guy who fell off his bike was was lying in the street. By the time we finished our current call and then got to the scene, FDNY still hadn’t arrived.” We’re not sure if that’s good news for CAVA or just looks really bad for FDNY, but impressive nonetheless. Response time is 6 minutes on average.
  • The Good Samaritan policy, passed by CC and SEAS student councils last December, is now on the books. The Guide to the Living now specifies that neither the student receiving care nor the student reporting the emergency will be penalized. But Alex assures that the Judicial Affairs process has always been more rehabilitative than punitive. They’ll offer BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students) as an optional treatment program. RAs are also instructed to check on CAVA’d residents. Still, Alex stresses, “you’ll never get in trouble because of any relationship you had with an emergency.”
  • CAVA can technically take you kicking and screaming to the hospital. “There are 4 criteria that deem you able to make conscious decisions,” Alex explains. “Obviously I need to have your consent to render care, but if I show up and you are completely passed out, we assume that you want to be helped. A lot of intoxes will say they’re fine, and then you’ll ask ‘what’s your name,’ and they’ll just say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Okay, let’s go.”
  • When CAVA arrives, clear the scene and let them do their job. It’s nice of you to volunteer to hold the stretcher, but you’re probably not an certified EMT with 120 hours of training. CAVA’s not even an official student group, but a division of Health Services and Public Safety. Also, don’t cheer when CAVA comes like it’s some kind of joke. These guys mean business.
  • The worst Alex has seen? “I had someone die last summer of cardiac related issues.” Only one death in the last three years. “If we’re a sports team, we play 800 games a year and we win every single one—the best win record.” Except they’re people’s lives. Alex adds, “If you know someone on CAVA—they could be your worst enemy or best friend—at any time of day they are willing to go save your life. And that’s frankly more than you can say about most of your best friends.”