Rescue Squad


The rescue squad idea was not entirely new when Julian Wise’s crew responded to its first call in 1928. The volunteer Goodwill Fire Department in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, had added a horse-drawn ambulance as early as 1890 and had begun to offer first aid in 1911. Wise’s innovation was to combine rescue, first aid, and lifesavihg into one independent agency. The nine members of the original crew all worked with Wise at the railroad. Citizens were invited to call in alarms to a phone that rang on the desk of the chief clerk, Harry Avis. Avis sent word to his fellow crew members, who rushed to the scene of the emergency. They received only six calls during the first year of operation, and in most cases the crew arrived too late to do any good.

“At that time, we could keep all our equipment in my Reo,” Wise said. The squad’s first-aid kit was a three-dollar fishing-tackle box, stocked with supplies that included poison ivy wash, tannic acid compound, ammonia inhalant, and tincture of Merthiolate.

IN 1931 WlSE AND HIS MEN WERE called out for a drowning. They reached the scene in eleven minutes and effectively revived a sixteenyear-old boy. The feat attracted national publicity. Interest in the volunteer rescue movement began to grow. Wise, a tireless promoter of his cause, traveled to cities in Virginia, the Carolinas, and elsewhere to help start squads, many of which copied the structure and philosophy of his crew.

In Roanoke itself a new group of volunteers under the leadership of Alexander A. Terrell formed a squad a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. The Hunton Life Saving and First Aid Crew, the first all-black rescue squad in the nation, served the city’s predominantly African-American northwest side. “We made calls to people we knew personally,” explains Lewis Peery, a softspoken man of seventy-four who served on the Hunton crew for more than thirty years beginning in 1955 and who currently sits on the board of the original Roanoke group. “It made it hard when you’d lose somebody. But we knew we’d done all we could.”

To get to the scene, rescue-squad members would drive their own cars or wait on the corner for another member to pick them up. One of the original Roanoke members remembered riding to a call on his brother’s bicycle. The core of Wise’s idea, the essence of all emergency work, is speed: to bring help to the injured or critically ill as quickly as possible. “Save seconds and you have a better chance of saving a life,” Wise said.

In this he echoed the sentiments of the man who is known as the father of ambulance service. Late in the eighteenth century Dominique-Jean Larrey, surgeon-in-chief in Napoleon’s army, observed that because military field hospitals remained at least three miles to the rear of the fighting, casualties did not reach them for twentyfour hours after a battle. “Most of the wounded died from want of assistance,” he noted, and he invented the ambulance volante , a light two- or fourwheeled carriage with room for a number of litters. The vehicle carried into the battle zone a medical officer and assistant, who were able to treat wounded soldiers where they fell.

Larrey wrote, “The first four hours are an isolated period of calm which nature is able to maintain, and advantage should be taken of this to administer the appropriate remedy.” This advice rings true down to today, when as emergency medical technicians we are trained to heed the “golden hour” after a traumatic accident, a window of opportunity to stabilize patients and transport them to an emergency facility.

While many of the developments of emergency medicine would emerge from the military, civilian volunteers have a long history of providing care. Perhaps the oldest continuously active group of volunteers is the Misericordia di Firenze, which was founded in 1240 to help the sick and transport the dead of medieval Florence. Hundreds of branches remain active in northern Italy, and volunteers are still inducted with elaborate robed ceremonies. In Britain the St. John Ambulance Association was formed in 1877. Despite opposition from the medical establishment, the organization trained volunteers in the stopgap treatment of wounds and illnesses, a practice for which members invented the term first aid .

In 1859 French, Italian, and Austrian troops engaged in a one-day blood-bath known as the Battle of Solferino, a fight that left thirty-eight thousand dead or dying soldiers strewn across the battlefield. Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss tourist on hand for the spectacle, was appalled, and he later organized a conference to establish humane rules of warfare. He set up a group to coordinate civilian aid to wounded soldiers. To honor Dunant, the organization adopted the Swiss flag with its colors reversed: a red cross on a white field. Dunant’s group became the International Red Cross, which in 1911 greatly expanded the training of laypeople in the techniques of first aid.