While fans tailgated and enjoyed the sunshine before Saturday’s Ragin’ Cajuns football game, a team of Lafayette teenagers crowded into two first-aid stations at Cajun Field, reviewing how to read vital signs and deliver emergency care.

The 13 students are members of Acadian Ambulance Service’s Acadian Explorer program, a career study program that allows 14- to 20-year-olds interested in emergency medicine to shadow emergency medical professionals while earning a basic life support certificate.

The program has been operational for years, but Acadian only recently decided to scale the program to cover all the company’s major service areas in Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee, said Lauren Anzalone, Acadian’s high school outreach coordinator. Heading into 2020, the company plans to have 16 Explorer posts operating, she said.

Anzalone is a former teacher who was originally hired by Acadian as a national recruiter, tasked with bringing people to the company in the face of a national EMS personnel shortage. Looking at the Explorer program, Anzalone realized the company was ignoring one of its strongest recruitment and development tools and pushed the company to invest in it.

“If you’re looking for more people to become EMTs and paramedics — there’s a gold mine in our local high schools,” Anzalone said she told her bosses.

The program works in conjunction with the Boy Scouts of America’s Explorer career search program. Acadian staff are cleared through background checks with the Boy Scouts and participate in the organization’s youth protection training, she said.

The advisers and other medical personnel then host monthly meetings with participants to teach them essential skills and oversee Explorers at events, like festivals and football games, so they can put their skills to the test. Explorers can also ride along with ambulance crews for additional exposure, she said.

The cost associated with each post varies, but the program hosts fundraisers and offers payment plans to prevent cost from being a barrier to participation, Anzalone said. The company also offers scholarships for its EMT academy, for which Explorers can apply.

The program is a valuable opportunity to expose young people to more diverse career options, she said.

“If you talk to a room of high school students and ask what they want to be, they’d likely say a doctor or a nurse. They don’t even realize how many other careers there are in the medical field,” Anzalone said.

Brittany Savant, Lafayette Explorer post supervisor, said she wishes a similar program had been available when she was a teenager in Texas. Savant joined Acadian Ambulance when she was 19 and has been with the company for 12 years.

Though her father and uncle worked as paramedics, she didn’t think the field was for her, Savant said. It wasn’t until she spent a semester at college and realized she wanted to be out in the community, serving others, that she was called to the profession, she said.

Programs like Acadian Explorer helps young people avoid wasting time, she said.

Top stories in Acadiana in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

“They can make a decision before they ever even graduate if this is the right career path for them, and they can start with hands-on experience that’s going to help them excel,” Savant said.

At the game Saturday, Acadian paramedic Jaron Bernard walked the Explorers through some of those skills, teaching them how to use Acadian’s equipment to read blood pressure and blood oxygenation while waiting for calls to come in. The older Explorers provided pointers while new entrants tested the equipment for the first time.

Savant volunteered to run the Lafayette Explorer post about three years ago and said it’s amazing to see the Explorers grow in confidence, leadership ability and skill. The adviser said the group of about 60 Explorers is like family, and she feels “elated” whenever a fellow paramedic or patient compliments her on an Explorer’s care. 

“I’ve watched some of these students grow up and I know I had a personal hand in their growth. That’s extraordinary to me. At times that can be better than working on an ambulance,” Savant said.

Lafayette Explorer post President Britney Decou, a senior at Southside High School, said she plans to earn her EMT certification and work for Acadian Ambulance while she attends school to become a trauma nurse. She credits the program with guiding her career.

Decou joined the Lafayette post when she was 14 and said working with the EMT volunteers and paramedics on shift has helped push her to “look higher” and have faith in herself.

“I know that when I’m in public I’m a person that can help someone else, even without paramedics or EMTs present. It makes me feel confident in myself,” Decou said.

The Explorer program also provided clarity for 17-year-old Daniel Hebert. The Acadiana High senior was attending an emergency medical response class when he learned about the Explorer program. Joining the Lafayette post seven months ago solidified his decision to pursue emergency medicine, he said.

Hebert rode along with ambulance crews three to four times each week in the summer and every experience was different, he said. The crews brought to life the technical and social skills needed to succeed in a way a textbook couldn’t.

“Dummies and book work are great, but they’re nothing like the real deal,” he said.

The high school senior has helped save patients in cardiac arrest and those suffering after car accidents and falls. There’s nothing like knowing you helped save that person for their family, he said.

“When you get a call and you go to someone’s house, it could be the worst day of their life. You get a chance to make it better and help them,” Hebert said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com