Seasoned Carnival revelers know the hazards accompanying a good Mardi Gras parade. For most, they are acceptable risks: the particular sting of plastic beads caught in the face, the throbbing temples following a morning of slightly more-than-festive drinking. But Dr. Jullette Saussy, superintendent of New Orleans Emergency Medical Service, knows there are serious emergencies, too. She oversees the 115-person staff that responds to local emergencies around the clock to local emergencies during the two weeks of Carnival. She discusses EMS preparations for Carnival and what you can do to stay safe.
Q: How does your department prepare for Mardi Gras?
A: We take each parade and map it out with strategically placed ambulances ... because you can't cross parade routes. We have it pretty set which hospitals we go to, based on what's going on. With the influx of millions of people, we certainly expect an increase in our calls to service, which will also result in emergency-department overcrowding. Since (Hurricane) Katrina, the state has provided some sort of help with the surge. The first year, they brought in a mobile medical hospital. The second year they had kind of a quasi-mobile medical facility. Last year they set up a tent and staffed it in addition to putting paramedics in the emergency room to off-load ambulances. This year, due to budgetary constraints, we're unsure of what level of help they're going to give us. But we'll be ready either way.
Q: Typically, how big is the surge?
A: On Endymion night we can surge by 200 percent. We generally run over 100-something calls, but on Endymion, it's in the 300s. At New Orleans EMS, everybody in our division works every single day for the entire Mardi Gras (season). We have guys who have full-time jobs elsewhere, and they actually take time off and come here to work this. A lot of those part-timers will come and participate because it's the best training in the world for mass events.
Q: What are some of the things people can do to prevent Mardi Gras-related emergencies?
A: Judicious use of alcohol would be my very first (recommendation). That leads to everything else. Don't drink and drive. Never get separated; always have a buddy with you. Be very, very careful of projectiles — coconuts, beads, etc. It's very important, especially for visitors, that they recognize those floats are massive, huge and run over people every single year. People need to watch their children. Inevitably, [riders] throw beads off the back (of the floats), and people run out to try to get them and get stuck under a vehicle. A moving float is huge. They really need to have healthy respect for the fact that it's a dangerous situation.
Ladders are another thing. Getting drunk and getting up on a ladder — not cool. Getting drunk, leaning off a ladder — not cool. Your equilibrium is off. People are falling off ladders.
The other thing I would say ... (is get) plenty of hydration. Make sure you're drinking lots of water. If you do choose to drink alcohol, make sure you're one-for-oneing it with the water. That will help keep you from getting too intoxicated.
The emergency rooms will be very, very busy. Our suggestion is if you don't have a true medical emergency, see your primary care doc.
Q: If you're in the crowd, how do you know someone's had too much alcohol and it's time to call for help?
A: We get a lot, a lot, of what we call "man down" calls. People don't seem to have any difficulty deciding when to call 911 when someone has had too much. And multiple people will call, especially in a crowd.
Q: What's your job like when you're not working on Mardi Gras?
A: We run the 911 service here in New Orleans. Half the year is spent fighting hurricanes, preparing for hurricanes and planning and all that. ... [During Mardi Gras] we have people that are specifically assigned to parades, but then your normal 911 operation has to keep going. There's a whole bunch of the city that doesn't participate in Mardi Gras at all and continues to have their medical emergencies.