Rochester, New York, USA
History of Greece Volunteer Ambulance
1959 to 2009
The Start of GVA
In the 1950's, the Town of Greece, NY experienced rapid growth. There was increased industry and commercialization of West Ridge Road resulting in a swelling population and a building boom.1 As the population increased, there was concern that emergency medical aid was not readily available. There were no hospitals on the northwest side of Rochester and an ambulance needed to come from the city (there were no expressways), load the patient (these were "Scoop and Run" days) and return to the city. About 18,000 people needed to wait between 20 and 30 minutes to get help in an emergency.32
The Greece Chamber of Commerce, at their May 1958 meeting, discussed the need for an ambulance service for the Greece Ridge (GR) and North Greece (NG) fire districts. A group of citizens, including businessmen and governmental leaders, banded together to raise funds and buy an ambulance. The men listed on the incorporation certificate organized a fund drive with one hundred people canvassing the two fire districts and raising $13,000. A used 1957 Pontiac modified station wagon style ambulance was purchased for $6,500.29. After both fire districts decided they did not want to assume the responsibility of an ambulance service, the group organized an independent company and on July 25, 1958 a charter of incorporation was granted by New York State.
Many GVA volunteers had served as civil defense wardens during World War II or were volunteer firemen. Over 150 members joined, many already trained in first aid. This encouraging response led to the incorporation of GVA. The service was an immediate success; after 60 days of operation keen interest swelled the ranks to over 250 members. In the first year, a previously estimated 100 calls for emergency service were actually 357 calls, with over 200 volunteers providing over 26,000 hours of free service. The organization was unique in that crews were at the base 24 hours a day and responded to calls at a moment's notice.
A letter announcing the start of free round-the-clock ambulance service was sent to residents on December 22, 1958.26 The ambulance service in the GR and NG fire districts started at 8 am on January 1, 1959, serving more than 20,000 people. This was the first independent volunteer ambulance service in Monroe County. Permission was obtained to use an abandoned waste treatment plant in Badgerow Park at 1100 Latta Road (east of Dewey Avenue) as the base of operations. Only men were allowed to volunteer and become members and by April 1959 over 300 volunteers manned the base full time.29 About 220 of the members took a ten hour first aid course. The uniform was an all white shirt, pants and a hat.5
Calls were received directly by telephone or by radio from the fire dispatcher in Rochester. If a crew was not available at the base, they were summoned by telephone; individual pagers were not introduced until 1979.28 The first call was on January 2nd at 1:04 pm to Ridge Road opposite Pepperidge Drive. A man fell seven feet when his ladder slipped on the ice. He had a two-inch cut over his left eye and was transported to Northside (later Rochester General) Hospital where four stitches were put in.33
On weekends, specific members were assigned to be available for call-in on a rotating basis.28 The first GVA officers were Fred Conway, president; Marvin Goldblatt, vice-president; Fred DiNardo, secretary; and Fred Strauss, treasurer.26 The director of operations was Walter Whelehan. Of the twelve founding members who signed the incorporation papers, only Fred Strauss and Walter Goldblatt are known to be alive in 2008. The member with the longest service time is Richard Johnston, who joined GVA in June 1959 and served on the ambulance until 2002, a total of 43 years.
The Early Years
Some of the events that occurred during the first year of service (1959) included: In the first month of service there were 36 calls. On March 4, 1959, the first radio transmitter to communicate with fire headquarters was installed in ambulance A-6.28
On April 21, 1959, land 100 feet wide by 436 feet deep, at the present location of 867 Long Pond Road, was purchased for an ambulance base. Marvin Goldblatt agreed to guarantee a loan needed to buy the land and construct the building. A base was built during 1959. It was a split-level house so it could be sold and the loan paid off if the ambulance service was not successful. It had a dispatch room, kitchen, a bedroom with three beds and a one-car garage. The cornerstone was placed on August 12, 1959 by Vincent L. Tofany, a member of the GVA Board of Directors and Greece town attorney, and Fred Strauss, GVA treasurer.6
On Sunday, Nov. 5, 1959, after a half hour concert by the Greece Olympia High School Band, a fifty-vehicle motorcade left Greece Town Hall (then at West Ridge Road and Long Pond Road) and traveled to the new base. The dedication of the base followed with about 500 people attending. Gorden Howe, chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Monroe County, and Sheriff Albert Skinner welcomed and commended the 24-hour service. The Rev. Morris Wilson, pastor of the Trinity Church of the Nazarene (GVA's neighbor) gave the invocation and the Rev. Edward Shamon, pastor of St. Lawrence R.C. Church, gave the benediction. An open house followed.6 This house, with many modifications, continues to be GVA's base in 2009.
The original base included an apartment on the second floor. For a number of years, this was rented with the tenants paying rent by providing housekeeping of the base. This included mowing the lawn, doing the laundry, making the crew's beds and cleaning the entire base. This arrangement worked for about 25 years, but problems caused it to be abandoned and the apartment was made part of the base by adding needed bedrooms.39
The Rev. Morris Wilson of the neighboring Trinity Church of the Nazarene joined GVA during 1959. He responded to so many calls that a door was installed on the north side of the base so he could enter faster. As the driver, he pulled out of the ambulance bay so fast that there were black skid marks left on the garage floor and it took a half hour for the smoke to clear.3 He was called God's co-pilot. Daan Zwick remembers sitting beside him in the medic's seat, pressing his feet hard against the floor wishing for a brake pedal and telling him "Please slow down, Reverend. You have God's protection, but I'm not so sure." He was usually on duty Friday evenings and used the free time to write his Sunday sermon.39 By the end of 1978, he had served 8,567 volunteer hours. He said, "The real attraction is the excitement. I just love to hear a siren."35
Originally, most GVA calls were received directly through the base telephone (CHarlotte 2-5800). GVA stickers with this number were given to residents during the annual fund drive. The dispatcher notified the Greece Police Department (GPD) and central fire dispatch. Some calls were made to the fire dispatcher and forwarded to GVA by radio. Most patients were taken to the brand-new Northside (General Hospital) or St. Mary's, with psychiatric patients usually being taken to Strong. Trips to Highland, Genesee and Park Avenue were at the request of the patient or the patient's doctor.39
From 1959 to 1994, GVA's income was almost entirely derived from the annual fund drives. All GVA members were required to participate in this, each member taking responsibility for contacting a portion of district residents or soliciting businesses within the district. A good portion of the solicitation was done by the daytime on-duty crews who went up and down streets with the ambulance (especially on weekends when people were likely to be at home). This method was particularly valuable when soliciting the apartment buildings - the crews had a chance to become familiar with the layouts of the apartment complexes.39
Initially, only men were accepted as members. In a few months, women were allowed to volunteer for day shifts, but they had to wear a uniform of a white blouse and a navy blue pleated skirt; after some experience on the ambulance, their uniform was changed to all white blouse and pants. It was felt that all white looked more professional. After a few years, women were allowed to dispatch from 8 am until midnight. Women had to be out of the base by midnight when a man assumed the dispatcher duties with a male crew in-house. Until the base was expanded in 1980, there was only one bedroom for overnight crews. Women could ride on the ambulance with a male crew (driver and medic) between 8 am and midnight. In the late 1960s, some husband and wife crews were allowed on the non-overnight shifts. In 1970 or 1971 female GVA members were allowed on any daytime shift, as driver or medic, if trained for that position. Two male members who refused to serve with females were expelled. In the case of a third, Rev. Morris Wilson, the women agreed not to volunteer during his usual Friday shift. Much of this restriction resulted from the opinions of that time that such service was not proper for women and that they were not capable of handling the required tasks. In 1977, while the Director of Operations (Jack Spry) was out of town, the Deputy Director of Operatons (Lorene Roberts) filled an overnight shift with the first all-female crew. Their first call was to Greece Police Station #2. When they arrived, the Greece Ridge Fire Department was there and both they and the police were surprised to see an all female crew.28 While Daan Zwick was president of GVA, he succeeded in getting women accepted on an equal basis.39 All female overnight crews were first permitted in 1981.
Theft of GVA Treasury
In 1966, the GVA treasurer took all the available funds from GVA because of personal problems. GVA was left with no money to pay its bills. Marvin Goldblatt loaned money to GVA for immediate expenses and a law firm contributed their services to recover some of the stolen money. The treasurer's house was sold and judgments obtained. Eventually, he changed jobs to avoid additional collections. Most of the judgment had been collected by late 1978. The extent of this loss was never fully known because the treasurer had been the only one overseeing the annual fund drive for several years. Daan Zwick reports that the fund drive immediately after the treasurer was arrested collected $36,000 in spite of the bad publicity, while the average for the previous three years had been only $14,000. This experience resulted in a big change in procedures for oversight of funds and the bonding of the treasurer.39
The Start of ALS in the Northwest Quadrant
In February 1974, Dr. Richard Banner, Chairman of the Mobile Critical Care Committee of the Society for Total Emergency Preparedness (STEP) Council of Monroe County, wrote a letter about the need to treat heart patients before reaching a hospital. STEP, with cooperation of the ambulance services in the Rochester area, set up a program of Mobile Critical Care (MCC, later called Advanced Life Support – ALS) units. These units acted as an emergency room on wheels, equipped to resuscitate heart and trauma victims and capable of stabilizing a patient at the scene. A portable electrocardiogram sent the patient's heart rhythm to the Strong emergency room where doctors could interpret it and give instructions to the medics by radio.30 Equipping a vehicle for this service cost $6,000. Training to operate this equipment was a forty-hour course followed by forty hours practice in a hospital. The first two such vehicles in Monroe County were at National Ambulance in the city and at Perinton Ambulance.
Dr. Banner noted that there were over 2,000 deaths from heart attacks in Monroe County in both 1972 and 1973 before ALS service was available. About half of these patients succumbed before reaching a hospital. By March 1976, the two equipped vehicles were in service in the city and the southeast quadrant. With these units in service, only one of more than forty patients was dead on arrival (DOA) at the hospital.
In January 1976, GVA notified the MCC committee of their desire to participate in the program providing service in the GR and NG fire districts. In November of 1976, GVA received a 1977 Dodge Monaco station wagon donated by Transitown Dodge for use as an ALS vehicle. It was designated Medic 4 and equipped with telemetry and medical equipment. Three paramedics - Frank Bruenig, Doug Ford and Tony Kingsley, having completed more than 170 hours of training, were ready to start the first ALS service in Greece.13 From the start in June to the end of 1977, Medic 4 responded to 260 calls, an average of 11 per week.
The Rochester area was a leader in the cooperation among EMS agencies and in providing ALS services. This was not seen in most areas of NY state.15 An example of this cooperation was the relay of patients by ambulance, because ambulances did not go outside their districts. The first such relay occurred in 1976. A patient who suffered brain damage and lack of muscle control after an electric shock was treated at Monroe County Hospital and then transferred to the VA Hospital in Canandaigua. Bob and Alice Patterson with Bob Hacksaw took him to a Route 490 rest area where he was transferred to a Victor-Farmington ambulance for the remainder of the trip.12 In 1977, an ambulance relay was made from Albany to Utica, then to Syracuse and GVA completed it to Park Ridge (later Unity) Hospital.
In October 1980, the Lake Shore Fire Department (LSFD) transferred their ambulance service to GVA. The Grand View Heights ambulance provided service to the Lake Shore Fire District, but a lack of volunteers made it difficult to always have crews available. GVA added the LSFD to its service area, and the Grand View ambulance was given to GVA.23
Ambulance Service in 198816
In 1988, the Times Union, Rochester's evening newspaper, reviewed ambulance service in Monroe County in a series of articles titled "Ambulance Service, an Uneven Commodity." The articles note that the 24 volunteer companies responded to about 24,000 calls in a year, about a third of all EMS calls in the city and county, and each company had different standards. Only ten suburban corps were state certified out of thirteen fire departments providing ambulance service and eleven independent or community organizations. State certification required them to meet standards and subjected them to limited controls. The county Health Director, Dr. Joel Nitzkin, said "I think we have some serious problems in terms of adequate numbers of people to provide (basic and advanced life support) countywide".
Many county ambulance corps, including GVA, were reviewed individually in the articles. GVA's review noted that this certified corps operated four BLS (Basic Life Support) ambulances and two ALS units. The corps had about 150 volunteers, including 104 EMTs and 14 advanced EMTs according to Donna Beyea, director of operations. One crew, consisting of a dispatcher, a driver and a medic was on duty at the base around the clock. An effort was made to have a second crew on "alert status" that could be at the base within 10 minutes for a second call.
On November 26, 1978, at 2:30 am, a GR firefighter spotted flames while driving by the Holiday Inn. The motel was filled with many Thanksgiving holiday visitors. The fire was out of control for over two hours and destroyed the top floors of the 91-room motel at 1525 West Ridge Road (opposite Stone Road). It became the worst hotel fire in Monroe County's history. More than 100 guests on a shopping tour from Toronto and Hamilton were staying there.31 John Geery, the GVA Director of Operations, coordinated EMS by GVA and eight other EMS units which responded from as far away as Churchville.24 Twenty one GVA members responded.24 The Greece Ridge Fire Department and other companies fought the fire with 150 firemen.25 A total of 10 ambulance crews came to the scene. Ten people died of smoke inhalation while 34 injured were transported to hospitals by ambulance. In addition, 180 people were assisted to escape the burning building.4 GVA member Douglas Ford was overcome by smoke and hospitalized.25 One LSFD ambulance member burned his hands while ripping burning clothing off a victim.24 A year later, fire experts unanimously concluded the cause of the fire was arson and the deaths were ruled homicides. A flammable liquid had been splashed inside a locked storage room and adjoining hallway and fire doors had been propped open to allow the fire to spread. No one has yet been arrested for this crime.37
On September 11, 2001, the terrorist attack which destroyed the Twin Towers in New York City required the local EMS crews to work long hours. A few days later, GVA sent two ambulances and eight members to New York City for three days to relieve some of their EMS crews. During this time, GVA transported three injured rescue workers to hospitals.
Career Personnel and Third Party Billing
In 1994, a continuing decline in the number of volunteers made it impossible to staff the base around the clock with volunteers. After much investigation, it was decided to hire paid drivers and ALS techs for duty, especially during the daytime and overnight hours. Dispatching continued to be done by volunteers, with paid personnel filling in occasionally when necessary. Thus, the ambulances were ALS-capable during these hours.
With the need to regularly meet a payroll, third party billing was started. MedEx, headed by Dave Mancuso in Le Roy, NY, was hired to determine the amount to be billed for each transport, collect from insurance companies and patients and deposit the money in the local bank. This replaced the annual fund drive as the major source of income for GVA. The last fund drive was in 1994, as GVA did not want to request donations while charging for service. Voluntary, but not solicited, donations and memorials continued to be accepted. Only patient transports were billed; other services and emergency calls not resulting in a patient transport continued as free services to the people of Greece.
In the early 1960s the split-level house used as GVA's base consisted of the small apartment upstairs where the caretaker lived and the main floor with a large living room containing the dispatcher's desk and chairs and TV for the on-duty crew, a small kitchen and a tiny room holding three cots where the overnight crew slept. A short flight of stairs led down to the "pool table room" used for training and recreation, and then down another flight to the basement with a washer, dryer, furnace, and storage space. There was a one-bay garage, on the south side of the building, for the ambulance and oxygen tanks.The tiny bedroom was real cozy. In most houses it would just be a pantry off the kitchen. The dispatcher used the cot closest to the door to the kitchen so he could get out first when the phone rang; there was only room for one person to stand up between the cots.39
In April 1979 an expansion of the base was announced in response to the increased demand for emergency medical services. Calls had increased an average of 10% a year for the 20 years since GVA was founded with 2400 calls in 1978. The expansion included enlarging the single car garage to four bays to house three ambulances, enlarging the first floor bedroom area for overnight crews, a larger dispatch area, an enclosed area for supervisors and crew chiefs, an enlarged first-aid room and kitchen, an improved interior paging system, a meeting hall and classroom for training and a sewer connection to eliminate basement flooding.34
In October 1991 the contract was signed for another major remodeling of the base at a cost of $290,750. This expansion included the addition of two garages for the ALS flycars, storage space, additional meeting rooms, a second living room for a second duty crew, expansion of the four-bay ambulance garage for six emergency vehicles, remodeling the front entrance for handicapped access, an additional upper floor with two bedrooms and a bathroom, and a new heating and cooling system using heat pumps to individually control the temperature in most rooms.32 Work was also done to eliminate ice-damming which caused roof leaks. The renovation was completed February 15, 1992. The base then had five bedrooms and two bathrooms on the two upper floors; the main floor had a complete kitchen, a bedroom for the dispatcher, two lounges for the duty crews and a dispatch office. The lower level had an office for the Director of Operations, two other offices, a conference room and a meeting & training room capable of seating 100 people.
"The Flasher" Newsletter was a monthly publication distributed to all GVA members. New procedures, new members and class schedules were regular features. News items concerning members and unusual calls, and monthly call statistics and total calls since GVA started were reported.
Initially, only some medics had first aid training, often received prior to joining GVA. There was no ALS (Advanced Life Support) or CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation) in use. First aid training was all according to American Red Cross standards which at the time had only two levels, basic and advanced. Medics were required to have advanced certification; drivers and dispatchers had to have basic. In the beginning a few GVA members, such as Vic Isaacs who was Director of Operations, were certified to teach basic first aid and new members took courses from them at the base. The classes were taught in the downstairs room, around the pool table, which was used as a demonstration table.39
Advanced courses were taught at the base by Jam Freeling, who was the senior medic at National Ambulance, which had the Rochester contract at the time. Jam was an excellent teacher – he would often say, "This is a Red Cross course, so I have to teach you this Red Cross procedure, but if I were the injured person, I would prefer that you used this different (easier or more effective) method, which I will now show you."39
There was almost no emphasis on stabilization of the patient at the scene, except for fractures. Get that Cadillac to the scene as fast as possible, put the patient into the hearse-style ambulance and then use lights, siren and the gas pedal to get to the hospital. What other first aid that was done was usually performed on the way to the hospital. The medic had three buttons with which to communicate with the driver. One activated a green light on the driver's instrument panel – that told the driver that everything was ok with the patient and he did not have to hurry. An amber light said "We need to get to the hospital quickly." The third light, red, meant "Pull over and stop. I need help back here!" Such a signal might result from imminent delivery of a baby or an uncooperative psychiatric patient. By 1977 medics were required to complete CPR training, be a NY State certified EMT and complete 8 hours training and observation in a hospital. After six months as a medic, driver training could be started if the person was at least 18 years old.39
The first Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course was held at the Manger Hotel in downtown Rochester in 1967. It consisted only of a series of lectures on a Friday evening, all day Saturday, and some on Sunday. The talks were given by doctors, nurses, and police officials. There were no hands-on sessions, only a short written exam and the EMT certification was good for five years. A far cry from 2009's rigorous training.39
Driver training was very informal in the 1960s. If you were a medic riding on a call a few times, the driver might say, "Why don't you try driving the rig back to the base?" Back at the base he might show you how to operate the lights and siren, and then on the next call, "Why don't you try driving on this one?" And after a couple of those, if you performed OK, you were an approved driver. Surprising as it may seem, we went over 100,000 miles before we had our first accident.39
Becoming a dispatcher was even easier. "My first time, I signed on for the midnight shift after having observed at the base on a previous evening. I had taken a nap at home and had overslept, so I did not get to the base until after 1 AM. The previous dispatcher had to leave at midnight, but John Palmer, the driver on the earlier shift, had stayed on to dispatch until I arrived. When I got there, John spent about fifteen minutes showing me how to operate the radio and the telephone, what to put on the dispatch slip for the driver, and how to record the call in a written log. He showed me how to phone the Greece police and radio the county fire dispatcher to report that GVA was on a call. And after explaining when and how to call Lakeshore or Barnard when we needed a back-up rig, John went home. I was then a fully-trained dispatcher.39
In recent years all medics had to be NY state-certified EMTs. Drivers were required to be certified in AFA so they could treat the less serious of several patients. Since GVA was a first aid station, the dispatcher also had to be certified in AFA since he might be the only person at the base at times. Medics and drivers also participated in skills refreshers courses featuring topics such as oxygen therapy, patient evaluation and assisting the paramedics. All levels of training were maintained by regular recertifications and frequent continuing education by speakers and drills, sometimes with other corps.28 GVA was the first volunteer corps to devise and carry out a modular retraining program for Adv FA. It consisted of three 10 hour modules which could be taken in one year or over two or three years. Each module included a test on the material covered.
Training was made more convenient by designating GVA as a satellite campus of Monroe Community College so students did not need to travel to the other side of the city for required training. Courses were taught in GVA's meeting hall.
For many years starting in about 1980 and continuing to the present (2009), GVA has sent an ambulance to the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tournament to provide medical service for the large crowds attracted. Also, the crews volunteering have a front row spot to watch the golfers. Bernie Polle made the arrangements for many years; now Brian Smith does.3
Near the end of 1988, the GVA Board of Directors approved the formation of an auxiliary to assist with administrative and other tasks around the base. Auxiliary by-laws were adopted on October 15, 1988 with about 20 members. They took the responsibility for crew scheduling, base tours, assisting with new member recruiting, tracking incentive points, preparing for CPR classes and maintained the manikins, filing and maintaining computer records and acknowledging United Way contributions. The Auxiliary has their own officers and budget and holds regular meetings. The Auxiliary's work allows regular members to do more ambulance duty hours.
On June 26, 1990, an armored truck was held-up in Henrietta and the robbers successfully escaped with $10.8 million. In the evening of that day, GVA was dispatched to Red Fedeles's restaurant at West Ridge and Manitou roads. Dave Timmons was the driver and Bill Stiewe the ALS tech. After examining the patient, Bill took Dave aside and requested that he call the Greece police because the patient was carrying a gun. The patient had been involved in the robbery that morning and was the first person arrested in what became a long investigation.
In 2002 Time Union columnist Carol Ritter wrote a five column article highlighting Richard Johnston's 43 years of service to GVA. Dick said he could write a book six inches thick about his experiences. He was part of the crews that delivered five babies ("after you do one, hey, all the rest are easy"). A 30 to 35 year old man came to the base one night and asked Dick if he recognized him. "You delivered me!", he said. Another time he was driving to a call when the left front wheel of the ambulance flew off while going 58 mph. It took some time to find it way out in a field. He learned from volunteering that "You are in so many peoples houses, you see how the rest of the world lives."17
In April 2004, GVA was named the EMS Agency of the Year by STEP of the Monroe-Livingston EMS Council.18 GVA's accomplishments that led to the award included:
GVA has provided standby service for athletic events at local parks for many years. In 2002, a golf cart with a trailer to transport it was purchased. This makes faster response possible as the cart can go across fields where an ambulance cannot and can move most patients to the ambulance.
In 2004 the Ridge Road Fire District (GRFD) requested GVA, Monroe Ambulance and Rural Metro Ambulance (which provided service in the City of Rochester) to submit bids to provide ambulance service in the GR district. A recent New York State law empowered fire districts to choose the provider of ambulance service in their districts. GRFD awarded the contract to Monroe Ambulance to start service March 1,2005.10 This resulted in approximately a 50% reduction in GVA calls and a corresponding reduction in GVA's income. In March 2008 the GRFD signed a contract for GVA to provide ambulance backup for Monroe Ambulance when they could not respond to a call.
GVA asked residents in the GRFD district to request GVA when calling 911 for an ambulance. A large number complied indicating GVA's excellent reputation with Town of Greece residents.
In 2006 GVA purchased two adjoining properties at 1806 and 1834 English Road for a future base. The property at 1816 is to be purchased when it becomes available. This will make a site of over 3 acres. It has 262 feet of frontage on English Road and 102 feet on Long Pond Road, with a depth of 517 feet back from Long Pond. There is access to both Long Pond and English roads.
In July 2006, Ambulance 2779 was formally dedicated to NYS trooper Andrew Sperr who on March 1, 2006 had been fatally shot in the line of duty. His father, Andy, is a GVA life member with over 24 years of service.
The continuing shortage of volunteers made it necessary to increasingly use paid people for dispatching at a cost of $80,000 a year. To reduce this cost, in April, 2007 dispatching GVA was taken over by the NGFD from their headquarters where their dispatchers were already on duty around the clock. This has worked very well even though it resulted in no staff at the GVA base at times.
The construction of a new base has been investigated for several years because the many modifications and structural problems of the aging base cause high maintenance costs and a less than desirable layout. Previous studies have stalled without identifying a desirable site. The existing location is centrally located in the town and it has been recently decided it is the best site for a future base.-->