Bells ring, sirens wail, trained medical personnel jump to action. It's the quintessential emergency response center.
There's just one difference: This year's oldest graduate from Hillsborough Community College still has years to go before she can claim senior-most status in this group.
That's because at 73, Mary Bramel is just a year older than the average volunteer on the emergency medical squad that serves the residents of Sun City Center and Kings Point. The oldest is well above 80.
Bramel, a former teacher, graduated last week with a college credit certificate in emergency medical technology. She's now a national certification test away from being a full-fledged EMT.
Bramel, like most of the other 435 volunteers on the squad, has no past professional experience in the medical field. But this isn't her first encounter with it. She spent the past 11 years volunteering as a first responder with the squad — going on calls, assisting EMTs and gathering patient information. Her husband of almost 50 years, Raymond "Connie" Abbott, is in his 12th year as a volunteer EMT.
She took a tentative step toward becoming an EMT last year when she audited the certification class held by Larry Linder on the SouthShore campus.
"I was so insecure about whether I could do this at my age," Bramel said.
But she soldiered on, with the support of her husband, her professor and the constant prodding by a captain desperate for more certified volunteers on his squad. She started the class in January with five fellow squad members.
Licensed as a basic life support provider, the Sun City Center Emergency Squad differs from the paramedics. Members of the squad can't administer medications or insert IVs, but they can perform CPR, provide first aid and transport patients to the hospital.
When a patient has an ailment that requires a paramedic, such as a stroke, the squad calls in Hillsborough County paramedics for assistance, said Chief Michael Jackson, a 63-year-old who has been with the squad for three years.
Last year, the all-volunteer Sun City Center squad went on more than 6,000 calls with at least 80 percent of them for patients who had fallen, Jackson said. Donations fund the operation, and all of its services are free to residents.
For volunteer workers, the position demands brains and brawn. The hardest part for Bramel and many of the other retirement-age EMTs: getting down on bended knee for eye contact with a patient.
"For someone over 70, that's not always easy," Bramel said.
Regardless of age, though, her fears resemble those of any rookie awaiting her first call.
"I dread that first time when someone's life depends on me," Bramel said. "I wonder if I will do the right thing."
But the thrill of a job well done is enough for her to give up her retirement lifestyle at least once a week, she said.
"The feeling you get when you know you've helped someone, you can't put a price on that," she said.
With a continually aging population, Chief Jackson sometimes worries whether he'll have enough volunteers to fill his 24-hour, 365-day-a-year operation. He counts on retirees such as Bramel who are willing to give up their time to help others, he said.
But unlike the age-restricted community, the squad is flexible when it comes to volunteers' ages, Jackson said. In fact, he wouldn't mind if a younger crowd came knocking at the door.
"That way we can get more years out of them," Jackson said.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or [email protected]