Rescue Squad


Recruiting is a perennial issue among volunteers. Nationwide, turnover runs about 25 percent a year. A slew of factors has made it hard for volunteer squads to maintain coverage twentyfour hours a day. Employers are less agreeable than in the past to letting workers take off from their jobs. More people work away from the community. The time demands of the rescue squad compete with second jobs and family duties. The ever-larger numbers of women entering the work force has left fewer volunteers available during weekdays. And EMS has become a much more attractive career in recent years. Some of the better, more committed volunteers move into career positions and find they no longer have time to volunteer.

Calls to domestic disputes, drug overdoses, or the aftermaths of shootings repeatedly remind the volunteer of the possibility of violence. Adding to the uneasiness is the peril of AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. EMTs are taught to assume that every patient is a carrier, every drop of blood a danger.

Despite all these drawbacks, unpaid providers continue to play a major role in emergency medical services. In rural areas volunteers are still the ones who arrive with the ambulance, who turn out at three in the morning to help neighbors and strangers in distress. “We’re committed to keeping the volunteer tradition alive in Roanoke,” Robertson told me. Indeed, as a symbol of that commitment, the city is now the home of the first museum dedicated to the story of volunteer rescue squads. “To the Rescue” is a $1.2 million exhibit mounted under the auspices of the Julian S. Wise Foundation. Besides educating the public, it commemorates those emergency responders who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

One of the questions that those outside the field ask rescue volunteers is “How do you handle the blood and gore?” In practice, training and experience turn blood from an emblem of horror into a sign that some action needs to be taken. “You have a bystander mentality that is purely emotional,” says Pat Ivey, who has written two books about her volunteerrescue experience. “But when you’re the one responsible, you shut that down and do what you need to do. Only after a call does that bystander perspective kick back in. We’ve had some terrible calls, but I’ve never seen an EMT who didn’t do what needed to be done at the time.”

Volunteers are a resilient lot who learn to walk a narrow path between cynicism and sentimentality, between callousness and tears. But the reason for enduring the countless hours of training, drills, and meetings, the frivolous calls and the horrific calls, the danger and the drudgery, is clear. The sense of fulfillment is worth more than any paycheck.

“I’ve never done anything that gave me the same satisfaction,” says Gordon Watson, a longtime veteran of the Roanoke squad and a colleague of Julian Wise. “It was an honor and a privilege to serve with the squad.”

My radio breaks the silence at two in the afternoon, a somber second day of deerhunting season. “Serious-injury auto accident.” A woman driving on the highway that cuts through our district has veered off the road. Maybe she was distracted by one of her two young children in the back seat. The car has careened down an embankment, flipped over, and thrown the driver out. The four-year-old has crawled from the battered vehicle and is found bleeding nearby. The two-year-old, rescued from his car seat, sits on the lap of a passerby and gloomily surveys the activity around him.

Squad officers direct our members as they arrive. We strap the mother to a plywood backboard; critically injured, she will prove to have suffered fractured vertebrae. Because we offer only basic life support, we summon a paid crew of paramedics to supply the woman with needed advanced life support on the way to the hospital. We bandage the older son’s lacerations and send him off in a different ambulance along with his uninjured brother.

It is an ordinary call. We’ve done what we could. For a few minutes the crew members who haven’t gone with the ambulance stand around speculating about the cause of the mishap, trading a few jokes and some gossip, unwinding. Then we remove our protective turnout gear, stash oxygen and first-aid kits back in our cars, and go home.

This was like all other fine adventures,” Julian Wise said, looking back on his life in volunteer rescue. “All we need to do is reach out and there are people to respond.”

Wise died on a July afternoon in 1985, not unlike the one during which he’d watched two men drown seventysix years earlier. In one of those dreamy coincidences, five hours after he took his last breath, a call came into Roanoke’s 911 system about a thirteen-year-old boy who’d gone down in the river. Volunteers rushed to the scene, found the boy unconscious, and in minutes had him breathing again.

And that, as every volunteer will tell you, is what it’s all about.