ORONO, Maine — A recent increase in the number of University of Maine students who drank so much alcohol they required an ambulance ride to the hospital is raising concerns among campus officials and local police.
There have been 44 alcohol-related ambulance transports since classes started in September, compared to 30 from all of the 2012-13 school year, according to data provided by Robert Dana, UMaine’s vice president for student affairs.
The majority of the emergency calls originated from the freshman dorms and occurred in September, but others are scattered all over the campus during every month students have been taking classes.
There were 205 total ambulance calls in the fall semester and 105 resulted in rides to the hospital, with 32 students going for an alcohol-related problem, the data shows. So far this semester there have been 69 ambulance calls, with 37 transports, 12 that were alcohol-related, according to data collected as of noon March 27, Dana said.
The 2012-13 school year numbers were considerably lower, with 21 alcohol-related ambulance transports reported for the fall of 2012 and nine reported in spring of 2013, Dana said.
“Alcohol, absolutely, is still a leading problem on college campuses,” Dana said during an interview on March 21 at his UMaine office. “A lot of kids are going to experiment with things. It happens to kids all over the place — this is the real world.”
Underage drinking, binge drinking and experimenting with street drugs are known college campus problems that Dana, a specialist in addictive behaviors, said he was hired in 1985 to address.
The campus University Volunteer Ambulance Corps, which is made up of approximately 60 student and staff volunteers based at Cutler Health Center, responds to around 500 calls annually and typically handles “about two [alcohol-related calls] per weekend,” said Dick Young, UMaine auxiliary operation director of Auxiliary Services, which oversees the ambulance service.
“A lot has to do with evaluating them to make sure the person is safe,” Young said Thursday. “We’re really looking out for the healthcare and safety of the kids when we [respond].
“We see them and manage them onsite a majority of the time,” he said.
Most of the calls for help come from friends and residence hall staff when they see an issue, he said.
“Most of it is concerned [people] that call us for a medical check to make sure everything is OK [with the person who has been drinking] and they’re safe and can fend for themselves,” Young said.
The Medical Amnesty and Good Samaritan reporting program, piloted in 2010 as a campuswide undertaking that encourages students to report extremely intoxicated classmates, may be playing a role in the recent increased numbers, said Dana and the local police chief.
Orono Police Chief Josh Ewing said he learned of the high number of alcohol-related ambulance transports on campus at the UMaine Student Wellness Resource Center’s alcohol coalition meeting in February that he attended with Capt. Scott Wilcox.
“Discussion focused on the fact that nearly half of all medical transports in the [fall] semester were alcohol consumption related,” Ewing wrote in his memo to town councilors.
Ewing informed the Orono Town Council about what he learned, and said last week that the Medical Amnesty and Good Samaritan program may be one reason for the increase in alcohol-related medical calls.
“If you’re drunk, even if you’re underage, and you’re [calling emergency services] for someone else, you don’t get charged,” Ewing said.
The amnesty and Good Samaritan project was created to encourage students to help others “who have an alcohol overdose” without having to worry about retribution from the law.
Callers may not be charged or face a university sanction for an alcohol violation under the Student Code of Conduct, but that does not mean they get off scot-free, Dana said.
“You’ll be heavily educated and your parents will be involved,” Dana said. “If you go to the hospital, we call your parents, we engage you in alcohol discussions and education. Our approach is: We want to engage them in problem solving and decent decision making and to do that they have to have the facts about alcohol consumption.
“It works and people do call,” he said of the amnesty program. “I think it’s playing a big role [in the numbers]. That, and a well-trained resident staff.”
The goal of the Medical Amnesty and Good Samaritan reporting program, dubbed “I’ve got your back,” is to create a support system for every student, Dana said.
“It makes a safer community — a closer community,” he said. “It’s called BIT, bystander intervention training, and we’re doing it all over campus. If you fall down, I don’t care if you’re drunk or slip on the ice, I want someone to call [for help].”
Educating students about the dangers of alcohol and overconsumption is an ongoing process, but it appears to be working off campus, the Orono police chief said.
“We’re not seeing the same numbers as four or five years ago,” Ewing said of off-campus, alcohol-related ambulance calls in Orono.
UMaine recently announced that younger students, freshman and sophomores, will be given preference to on-campus housing starting in the fall, which Ewing said means there will more older students living in town.
After the campus change, “I almost think we’ll end up with less [alcohol-related ambulance calls],” the police chief said. “Juniors and seniors are more focused.”
With more younger students on campus next year, it’s possible the on-campus ambulance calls for alcohol consumption may again increase, which is why school officials are talking about it now, Dana said.
“The good news is probably close to 100 percent don’t repeat,” Dana said, referring to students who get alcohol poisoning and are transported by ambulance to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped or other treatment.
Intoxicated students who are unresponsive; unable to stop vomiting; are having slow, shallow or irregular breathing or who are incoherent or unable to make rational responses need medical attention, according to the UMaine program.
Students who discover an intoxicated person should try to wake them, roll them on their side so they don’t choke or drown in their own vomit and then call for emergency medical assistance. To qualify for the amnesty program, the caller must stay with the intoxicated person until emergency crews arrive.