Sheryl Cooney Orlowski, a life-time member of the Austin Volunteer Fire Company, is well known in the Austin Community, having cared for several residents and their families for well over 39 years.
Sheryl joined the Company in 1981 at the age of 21. She said she was encouraged to join by co-workers and members of the Austin Fire Department, Jerry Hunsinger, Duane Dow and Blair Shupe. Orlowski immediately began assisting with fundraising and auxiliary activities.
As a new member, she saw the need for volunteers and wanted to get involved to help people, so she became a first responder in 1981. As a first responder, she ran ambulance calls and provided basic first aid. Orlowski then completed the Essentials of Firefighting Class in 1982, becoming Austin’s first certified female firefighter. She also completed the Emergency Vehicle Drivers Training course and became certified to operate the apparatus. Orlowski donned the bunkers and fought a few fires before she realized that the back of the ambulance needed her more and was her true calling.
In 1988, Orlowski decided she wanted to expand her patient care-provider career. She furthered her education by completing the Emergency Medical Technician — Basic course through Bucks County Community College, which allowed her more interaction with patients during an emergency. At the time, EMT training consisted of approximately 200 hours of class and testing time, along with clinical work in hospitals and several hours of truck time in the ambulance and tagging along with senior EMTs. Orlowski continues to serve as an EMT and maintains her certification by completing continuing education classes to stay up-to-date with ever changing guidelines in the EMS field.
Over the years, she has been an extremely active EMT and has been recognized by the department numerous times as the EMT attending the most calls throughout the year. Orlowski has served as assistant ambulance chief multiple times and currently serves as second assistant ambulance chief, a position she has held for numerous years.
When the paramedic program began at Charles Cole Memorial Hospital, Orlowski ran as a paramedic’s assistant for many years. She continued to further her education and training by completing continuing education classes and obtaining certifications in hazardous materials, incident command and many more. She has completed well over 1,000 hours of training.
Orlowski has been a member of the AVFD executive board and the fire board throughout her career. She has played a huge role in orienting and training new members and has chaired many fundraising events.
Orlowski states she feels privileged that for almost 40 years she’s been welcomed into the homes and lives of our community members.
“The faces, the stories, the hugs and the tears have changed me forever. Sometimes, you can be on cloud nine after bringing back a cardiac arrest patient. Other times, you’re the person that hears a dying patient’s last words or breath. EMS has showed me the power of compassion,” Orlowski said.
“It can be very gratifying to be part of helping someone on their worst day.” Orlowski said, adding that basic first aid and early cardiopulmonary resuscitation is crucial. She encourages family and friends to take local first aid and CPR classes in their community.
In a effort to fundraise, as well as improve response times, Orlowski chaired the sale of reflective 911 signs. The community is now able to receive quicker care and the first responders are able to find locations easier.
Orlowski reflects on the rewards and sacrifices that come with being an active responder.
“Being an EMT comes with its sacrifices, such as giving up a lot of family time on holidays and weekends. Many times, we would be sitting down to dinner and the tones would drop and out the door I went” she said. “When the pager trips, everything else changes. Not only for me but for everyone around me. Whether it’s 2 a.m. or 6 p.m., I’m always ready to respond.”
When asked why she volunteers, Orlowski responds she does it for everyone in the community she grew up and lives in.
“In my 39 years of service, that is the only thing that has remained the same. Each ride in the back of the ambulance is different. You never know what to expect when the tones drop. There are a lot of calls I could never forget, and some I wish I could. The calls when you have to tell someone their loved one didn’t make it, that awkward first experience with death and trauma, is both physically and emotionally challenging,” Orlowski said.
Nevertheless, she says for the most part it has been a great experience being a part of EMS.
“I’ve been rewarded in many ways—I get to help people, see a baby I delivered grow up and I get to watch a group of volunteers come together and accomplish unbelievable things. I’ve made a few lifelong friendships along the way too,” she said.
“As an EMT, I’ve always had the overwhelming urge to help others, so when the tones drop, I respond,” she said.
With today’s lack of volunteers and trained EMT’s, she encourages any one interested to join your local department. As a volunteer you never know who/or if anyone will show up to the station to respond, volunteers are desperately needed everywhere.
Similar to volunteer fire firefighters, there is a serious need for EMTs, first responders and paramedics, Orlowski said. Although the EMT training process is lengthy and more expensive than it used to be, the need for trained personnel is greater than ever she said. Orlowski states that most people don’t understand exactly what an EMT is and refer to them as ambulance drivers.
“Although I can drive the ambulance, there is much more to being an EMT than just driving. An EMT is basically a person trained and certified to assess and then initiate emergency care for victims of trauma or illness before and during transport to a health care facility. You will see EMTs at at Medical emergencies, motor vehicle accidents, fires and basically anything else you can imagine being called into 911,” Orlowski said.
“We provide emergency care such as CPR, immobilization, controlling bleeding, monitoring firemen at fires, checking vitals, applying oxygen, delivering babies and caring for specific injuries and illnesses. You may also see an EMT doing simple wellness checks, lift assists or transferring a patient to a different hospital. You can also see an EMT working a fundraiser or teaching kids at the school about EMS and what to do in an emergency.”
Orlowski is one of the most active members of the department and continues to be involved outside the department in the community by volunteering with the Austin Food Pantry. She has lived in Austin her entire life and graduated from the Austin Area High School in 1977. She is employed part-time by the Austin Area School District. She is married to David Orlowski and they have one daughter, Tracy, who is a member and EMT as well, currently serving as ambulance chief.
“You too can make a difference in your community”, Orlowski said. The Austin Volunteer Fire Company is always looking for new members including EMTs, firefighters and social members. For more information on joining Austin Fire and Ambulance, contact Tracy Orlowski at 814-647-5311. Volunteers in the field are urgently needed.