Q&A with Mike Schlechter, North Highland Executive & Chief of the Weston Volunteer EMS



North Highland is incredibly thankful for the healthcare community and essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our employees have friends and family on the frontlines, and our hearts are with them during this time. We talked with Michael Schlechter, an executive based in our NYC office, about his work as the chief of the Weston, CT Volunteer EMS and how he’s supporting his community during the pandemic.

How are you supporting your local community during the pandemic?

That’s a pretty big question with an even bigger answer. In my role as chief of Weston Volunteer EMS, I’m tasked with the development and implementation of all protocols for the department. I have a group of line officers (two captains, three lieutenants) who I work with, but I am ultimately responsible to the wellbeing of my staff of 49, the community we serve, and ensuring we are complying with the national, state, and local laws, standards, and best practices. COVID-19 has impacted pretty much every facet of what we do across the organization.

Specifically, for COVID-19, I initiated a planning effort in early February focused mainly around emerging supply chain concerns and updating our organizational structure to accommodate immediate succession plans for key roles, as well as resource sharing with my sister departments in town: police and fire. We are all volunteers, so succession planning was and is critical. What if the disease gets so bad people don’t want to respond? This is always a challenge with EMS, be it career or volunteer, but especially so with our system. It is 100 percent about keeping the people engaged.

By the first week in March, it was obvious that we were at risk, and this became a topic our operations committee began detailed planning for, as well as assigning one of our crew chiefs to act as the COVID-19 response coordinator. The trick to balancing being a husband, father, full-time employee, and volunteer EMT and chief of EMS is knowing when to delegate and when to be focused on the details.

In partnership with other local services (fire, police, local elected leaders), we opened our Emergency Operations Center, developed a cadence of meetings and identified clear lines of communication and authority. From there, the situation began to evolve rapidly, and we faced challenges every step of the way, including:

  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): While we do annual N95 mask fit-tests for EMS and felt we had enough stock on hand, we quickly realized this was not the case across all departments. We began a joint procurement effort and partnered with neighboring departments on finding verifiable N95 masks appropriate for medical use.
  • Staffing: With an all-volunteer team, I did an analysis of the age of my department – at the time it appeared that the disease would disproportionately impact older individuals. I worked out how we would operate should all members over the age of 60 be unable to respond to calls or be forced to work in a limited duty capacity. I also have a small, but growing, cohort of high school EMTs, many of whom are minors. That meant working with their parents on what they can and can’t do, while ensuring their safety. Since we are all volunteer, our squad has a relatively high average age, with many retirees who are active members. Immediately, I established a rule that the EMT focused on patient care should be the youngest non-student crew member where possible, and the driver should be the older or higher risk member.
  • Change in Protocol: We had to iterate on our protocols to limit the number of EMTs, firefighters, and police officers who would enter a home or engage with a patient or bystander. I established a connection with the local health district to get notification from the disease surveillance system when a person or persons in our catchment area had a laboratory confirmed case of COVID-19. This is probably the most important thing I could have done and wish I had done sooner. By having specific information on who has this highly communicable disease, I was able to note the addresses in the computer aided dispatch system, and cross reference the information with ambulance transport records to see if any of our members or equipment was potentially exposed. Also, that address would be noted so if any other arm of the public safety apparatus responded to that home there would be advanced notification to treat the scene with the highest level of PPE available. This goes right down to the Animal Control Officer.
  • Team Illness: In late March, one of our dispatchers came down with a fever. Then a second, then a third and so on. Suddenly we didn’t have sufficient trained and certified staff to man our local 911 call center safely, and our EMTs, police officers, and firefighters may all have been exposed. We were down to one available dispatcher and implemented our back-up plan to rollover to a back-up location. We were able to partner with the town of Redding, CT to maintain services in Weston. After 10 days, we were able to ensure we had local staff to safely operate again.

We are faced with a new challenge almost daily. Just when you think you covered all of your bases you get a new update. My job as chief has become as much about predicting the next change as responding to the last.

What made you want to get involved?

This is actually really easy to answer. When I was 11 years old, my family was on a ski trip in VT, and my mother had a severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis. A local volunteer EMT responded and was able to give her an injection of epinephrine and quite literally save her life. I remember asking him how he knew what to do, and he told me he was an EMT. I decided then and there I would become an EMT one day. When I was still in high school, I did. When I was in college, I helped found the all-student volunteer emergency medical service on my college campus (Bates EMS – still going strong!) and would become the first chief of service of that department. I worked my way through college in the back of an ambulance. I even met my wife on an EMS call; she was a bystander who provided me a ton of help when my brand-new partner froze up on a call with a young woman with a spinal injury. Basically, every great moment in my life has been related to me being an EMT. When it came time to buy our first house, my wife and I only looked at towns where I could continue as a volunteer EMT. As an EMT, I learned how to manage stress. I learned how to speak to anyone at any time about almost any subject – you can’t imagine the people you meet and things you learn in the back of an ambulance at 3 a.m. on a Saturday. I learned how to effectively document what I found, what I did, why I did it. I learned how to iterate and test and learn along the way. Basically, I learned how to be an effective consulting executive while in the back of an ambulance starting at the age of 16.

How are you applying your consulting skills to support your EMS leadership role?

Another easy question with a really complicated answer. In the last seven weeks, I have had to effectively transform my entire department from normal operations to a low-staff, high-risk, response method. Between CDC and CT Department of Health, we are getting protocol changes and guidance a few times a week. Then there was that whole thing about losing our local dispatch system for ten days. This has been change management and employee engagement under threat of COVID-19. The ability to effectively explain and implement rapid change, while inspiring and engaging an all-volunteer staff to show up on calls where they come in contact with a truly deadly disease doesn’t happen by accident. Leadership is about showing a team how to do what needs doing, explaining why it needs doing, and assuring them that you have their backs. Then throw in a deadly disease, and that assuring them you have their back bit becomes truly life or death.

Leading an all-volunteer organization takes a great deal of energy and purpose. Not only that, we do not bill for service, nor do we receive operational funding from the Town of Weston. Thus, we are effectively dependent upon donations from our community. I’m not only responsible for keeping the volunteers trained, enabled, certified, and engaged, I’m also responsible for public relations with our donor base.

I’ve been able to parlay my 20+ years in marketing and consulting professional services into a leadership role where I can professionalize and elevate the role Weston EMS plays. North Highland has enabled me to hone my skills as a leader and build expertise in change management communications and employee experience. Those have been the critical skills I’ve leaned on as I’ve evolved Weston EMS from a medical-response-only department to an equal partner and community leading organization. Frankly, it has been the greatest joy of my life. I get to combine my passion for my community, my expertise in helping organizations fully realize their potential and thrive, and my first love, prehospital emergency medicine, in a way that I think has truly made a difference where I live.

Is there anything else you want to share?

I often get asked if I ever wanted to be a doctor, and that is why I’m an EMT. Folks are always surprised when I tell them no, I never entertained medical school.

I also often get asked what it is about my work that keeps me so energized, aside from my unhealthy levels of coffee consumption.

The answers to both questions actually spring from the same well. I’ve always been happiest and at my best when I’m focused on a group, and how to get them to become the best version of themselves. If you were to evaluate me on my medical skills alone, I’d be a pretty middle of the road medic. Where I am able to provide the most value is as a coordinator and teacher – which is exactly what being a consulting executive at North Highland demands of me. 

One final thought. Babies. Every so often I get to deliver a baby. Nothing beats that. Nothing.