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Robbie Cohen and members of Harpur's Ferry ambulance service worked 11 straight days at the Events Center shelter during the floods of September 2011.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Commencement 2012 profile: Robbie Cohen
May 14, 2012Tweet
On the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2011, Robbie Cohen traveled to Wal-Mart in Johnson City to pick up his housemate and give him a ride home. He got to the store and looked at his silenced cell phone.
“I had five missed calls,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow. I’ll drive my housemate back and then see what’s going on.’ In the time it took to get from Wal-Mart to my house – a 5- to 10-minute drive, I accumulated another seven missed calls and some text messages from numbers I didn’t recognize.” I said: ‘What is going on?’”
A deluge of rain was not only causing floods in some parts of the Binghamton area, but many residents were being evacuated from their homes. As executive director and chief of Harpur’s Ferry, the student-run, volunteer ambulance service at Binghamton University, Cohen soon learned that the Events Center would begin serving as a shelter for evacuees in a matter of hours.
“OK, we’ll work quickly,” Cohen remembered saying to himself.
What followed was days of tireless service from students, faculty, staff, alumni and community agencies and members providing care and support to those whose lives were uprooted.
Cohen and Harpur’s Ferry did work quickly, with two ambulances, two first-response vehicles and about 20 members on duty as the campus shelter opened. The ambulance service would spend 11 days, 24 hours a day, treating those in need at the Events Center.
“That was a lot to ask of our members,” said Cohen, a 21-year-old political science major from Katonah in Westchester County. “We had 70 members helping. When I look back at my four years here, that was unprecedented. It speaks volumes not only to our members, but to the caliber of students Binghamton University gets and the caliber of the University’s outreach.”
Harpur’s Ferry treated 257 patients over the 11 days. The service normally treats 850 people in a year. Members even played with children who were brought to the Events Center.
“I had a 4- or 5-year-old helping me compose e-mails while we reviewed the letters he had learned in kindergarten in the days before the flood,” Cohen said.
While Cohen was managing the Harpur’s Ferry staff and treating patients, he became a flood victim himself. His Binghamton apartment was damaged by the flood and he was forced to live with friends and on campus for almost a month.
“I got by with a little help from my friends,” he said. “That’s the truth.”
By the time the Events Center shelter closed, Harpur’s Ferry members felt a mix of “accomplishment and relief,” Cohen said.
“There was a feeling of pride: Look what we made it through,’” he said. “But part of my plea as leader of the group was to put the service above the recognition. Stay humble. We made it through and did a good job but by being focused and humble.”
Cohen’s humility came to the forefront again in the spring semester when Harpur’s Ferry was named National Collegiate Emergency Medical Services Foundation Agency of the Year, beating about 300 other schools. It was the second time Harpur’s Ferry had earned the honor (2005 being the other). The group also won the Broome County EMS Agency of the Year.
“It’s recognition for hard work, service and dedication,” Cohen said. “It’s possible to have feelings of accomplishment and camaraderie without being arrogant about it. We didn’t get these awards because we are loud and flashy. We got them because we are hard workers.”
A volunteer firefighter in high school, Cohen joined Harpur’s Ferry as a freshman. He served as communications coordinator as a sophomore and assistant chief as a junior before becoming chief as a senior.
“The hardest part (of the job) was learning that there was no such thing as an average week,” he said. “The managing part is easy because we are fortunate to have hard-working, responsible members who pull their own weight and have supported me as their leader. The dynamic that the members and I had this year was key to dealing with what was out there.”
Cohen credited his team for helping to save a heart-attack victim outside of the Union early in the spring semester. From bystander to police to EMS, it was a “perfect emergency response,” Cohen said.
He also recalled the role of Harpur’s Ferry in response to the stabbing death of Professor Richard Antoun in December 2010.
“That was a tragedy. It was a challenging call to work as an EMS provider. When you do the best you can for your patient and your crew …” he said, his voice trailing off.
Cohen’s leadership role on campus covers more than Harpur’s Ferry. He serves on the Student Health Advising Committee, the Sexual Assault Task Force and the Alcohol and Other Drugs Steering Committee, and has spent three years as a campus tour guide.
“It is easy to take note of his strong leadership qualities, his clear, respectful and well-articulated manner of communication and his passion and enthusiasm for his work,” said Johann Fiore-Conte, director of Health and Counseling Services. “He presents with poise and maturity well beyond his years and approaches situations thoughtfully and fairly. I have had the opportunity to observe him handle personnel issues within Harpur’s Ferry and can attest to the timely and balanced way that situations were handled. He is organized, conscientious and very personable.”
Serving as a role model and a leader by example who can work with a 100-member organization can be attributed to Cohen’s family and upbringing. His family is Jewish and Christian and he is the oldest of five siblings. His three youngest siblings were adopted from Mexico and Guatemala.
“Growing up in a diverse family prepared me with two important lessons,” he said. “First: It’s always important to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. There are reasons why people do the things they do. There is always a new way to think about something. Second: It reinforces a need to appreciate others. Everyone has something to offer and bring to the table.”
Cohen will return to Binghamton University after graduation, as he pursues a master’s degree in public administration. He plans to remain with Harpur’s Ferry as a general member.
“It’s time to pass the torch,” he said of leaving the chief position. “I’m looking forward to covering calls, working with new members and keeping up with our training. It was a great job for one term.”
Cohen hopes to someday hold a “small, elected office” or work at a university in campus life or student affairs.
“College is an experience,” he said. “It’s not a lesson. It’s not something you can learn at the library. You need to be involved – take the skills your classes give you and the skills you observe from your peers and mentors and apply them yourself. Somebody always has a new perspective you can learn from. It’s about the people, the campus life, the food. It’s all an experience and it would be unfortunate to miss out on that.”