First responders, 20,000 strong

Alison Wallin was at ground zero in New York after the 9/11 attacks with the Dumont Volunteer Ambulance Corps, one of about 300 first aid and rescue squads represented by the New Jersey State First Aid Council.
Alison Wallin was at ground zero in New York after the 9/11 attacks with the Dumont Volunteer Ambulance Corps, one of about 300 first aid and rescue squads represented by the New Jersey State First Aid Council.

New Jersey State First Aid Council marks 85 years.

Posted: August 26, 2014

When the calls for help came that September day in 1934, volunteer first aid squads were still new - and about to face a very real test.

A fire had spread through the luxury liner Morro Castle as it rocked and rolled through a nor'easter off the New Jersey coast. Scores of passengers were burned and injured; 137 died.

First aiders from 34 squads sprang into action, triaging victims and transporting many to area hospitals.

Three years later, they were again called on for a major disaster when the luxury airship Hindenburg was engulfed in flames while landing at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Ocean County. More than 30 passengers and crew members were killed, but many other burned and injured people were helped by 29 first aid squads.

Together, the Hindenburg and Morro Castle disasters placed a national spotlight on volunteer medical first responders, members of squads belonging to the New Jersey State First Aid Council (NJSFAC).

The nonprofit council, now marking its 85th year, was formed in 1929 in Belmar and sparked a push for volunteer emergency medical services across the country.

"The Hindenburg and Morro Castle brought the volunteer squads to the forefront," NJSFAC president Howard Meyer said. "Dark clouds have silver linings . . . . People began to see the worth of the squads."

Volunteer emergency medical services personnel turned out during the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the 9/11 attack in 2001, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

They "remain the backbone of many response systems throughout the country, especially in New Jersey," Meyer said. "Without this core group of devoted individuals, there is no way the EMS system could handle the volume of calls daily, never mind the disasters."

The NJSFAC now represents about 300 first aid and rescue squads and more than 20,000 EMS volunteers across the state, said Sylvie Mulvaney, a spokeswoman for the group.

All emergency medical technicians (EMTs) - whether volunteer or paid - take required training to earn state certification, she said. The state has a total of 27,000 EMTs and paramedics, according to a spokesman for the state Health Department.

The council's member squads volunteered more than 2.8 million hours in 2013, answering about 354,000 calls in more than 800 ambulances, Mulvaney said.

"In addition to answering hundreds of thousands of calls and volunteering millions of hours annually, NJSFAC members have responded to countless disasters," she said.

The first aid council was the idea of Charles Measure, a military veteran who drove ambulances in World War I. When he came home from the war, he joined a Belmar volunteer fire company but also saw a need for a volunteer first aid squad.

After saving a life by applying a tourniquet to the arm of a police officer who seriously gashed it at a fire scene in Belmar in 1927, Measure thought more about the possibilities.

By 1928, he established the Belmar First Aid and Safety Squad, recruiting more than dozen town fire department members who were trained by him and a local physician. It was the first volunteer first aid group in the nation.

At least eight other Shore communities started squads by 1929, making it clear to Measure that an umbrella organization was needed to help pool and standardize the efforts. The NJSFAC was born that year with Measure as its president.

Today, the council covers the state, which is divided into 21 districts. Four of them - including the largest at 50 square miles - are in South Jersey, stretching from Trenton to the Shore. The northern districts tend to be smaller because they cover more populous areas, such as Hoboken, which is only a square mile.

"Without the volunteers, we would not have a good situation in New Jersey," said Meyer, 64, of New Providence in western Union County. "The first two directors of New Jersey's Homeland Security Department have publicly stated that without a significant, viable voluntary EMS recourse, the state would not be able to adequately respond to large-scale incidents."

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, "the volunteers were important because of the size of the catastrophe," said Frank Goodstein, an emergency medical technician with the Roselle Park First Aid Squad who was NJSFAC's EMS disaster coordinator on 9/11. "They left their jobs and came up with their ambulances.

"I was 150 feet away when the second tower began to fall," he said. "I went past the site several days ago - and I can tell you what happened that day is still vivid in everybody's minds."

One of the reasons? "A lot of our folks knew people in the buildings or knew people who lost family members," said Meyer, who served during that time as an EMS coordinator and team leader in Hoboken and Jersey City. "It was an event that rippled through the state like no other."

Volunteers are known for their dedication, he said. "Although many of our members are raising families, working multiple jobs, in school and honoring obligations and commitments, they still have time to help their neighbors," Meyer said. "Volunteers are the past, present, and future of EMS. We're looking forward to celebrating our 100th anniversary."

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