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Saving Lives, Changing Lives

June 2024
1min read

Far from the service’s rural beginnings, a squad works daily wonders


A rescue squad is a visible institution that can give a community a sense of self as well as a sense of security. In 1988 Julian Wise’s idea was picked up by James ("Rocky") Robinson in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy, one of the oldest African-American communities in New York City, had been hit hard by poverty and drug violence. Fed up with twenty- and thirty-minute response times on the part of the city EMS system, Robinson, himself an EMS supervisor, and fellow EMS veteran Joe Ferez launched the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps (BSVAC).

Big-city rescue volunteers are not new. Though we often picture the movement as a rural or suburban phenomenon, there are forty-six squads in New York City. The oldest, in the College Point section of Queens, dates back to 1942. The squads supplement the municipal EMS system, which receives more than four thousand calls on a busy day. Volunteers may serve clients with special language and cultural needs, as does the large and well-organized squad Hatzolah, which ministers to the community of Hasidic Jews.

Like many squads, Robinson’s started without even an ambulance. Members monitored radio scanners and hurried off to calls in their own cars and by foot, hefting tanks of oxygen and first-aid kits. A couple of years later, after publicity on the ABC television show 20/20 , the squad managed to acquire an ambulance and a fiftyfoot mobile home as a headquarters.

“Everyone was skeptical at first,” Robinson says. “Even the people in the neighborhood didn’t know if we could cut it. But gradually they came over to our side.” Training became a big part of the squad’s operation. Working with the city, the Bed-Stuy group has been instrumental in training more than five hundred EMTs. Previously, members of minorities had rarely had the opportunity to acquire the experience needed to move into EMS as a career, Robinson points out. Now many of the program’s alumni are working as career EMS employees. “We started out to save lives and ended up changing lives,” says Robinson, a burly man in his mid-fifties.

The squad has helped welfare recipients and gang members gain a direction in their lives. Robinson is particularly proud of his “Trauma Troopers,” children who learn CPR and first aid in after-school classes. They are encouraged to spend time at the squad’s headquarters. Recently, Robinson’s partner, Joe Ferez, moved to Southern California, where he is working on starting a similar squad in South-Central Los Angeles.

Deborah Crawford, a forty-two-year-old BSVAC veteran who lives near the squad’s quarters, says, “I volunteered just to help out as a secretary. Then I took some training and went on a call, then another call. I liked it. I became a tech, learned to drive.” She now works for the city emergency medical system as an EMT. Her eightyear-old son, Vischon, is one of the Trauma Troopers. He spends time with the squad, helps out with supplies, learns by watching.

“Maybe someday,” his mother says, “he’ll be a doctor.”

-J.K.

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