VERGENNES — On Saturday, May 10, 1969, Vergennes resident Jim McEvilla responded to a ringing phone, raced to city hall, fired up a Chevrolet station wagon parked in the rear garage and drove off to a nearby medical emergency.
That was the first of 94 calls in the first year in what is now the 40-year history of the Vergennes Area Rescue Squad.
That’s a far cry from the most recent 12 months, when VARS’ three ambulances, with full crews and complements of life-saving equipment and drugs, responded to about 860 calls for help from its Panton Road headquarters.
What VARS and its 37 volunteers and two paid staff members now provide is even further removed from typical Vergennes-area emergency responses before 1969, said current VARS President Steve Fleming.
Transport choices for the ailing boiled down to a Brown-McClay Funeral Home hearse, police cruisers or family cars. There were none of the life-saving ambulance features now taken for granted — backboards, cardiac monitors and defibrillators.
“People would be put in a police cruiser and taken to the hospital or a private car, or call out the hearse,” Fleming said. “There were a lot of people who died who could have been saved with the extra technology and training we have now.”
Addison resident Phil Grace and other founding VARS members took a 40-hour course offered by Vermont State Police. Now 24 VARS volunteers are certified Emergency Medical Technicians, 15 Basic EMTs and nine Intermediate EMTs. Even the Basic level requires at least 120 hours of education and another 20 hours of observation, according to VARS operations coordinator Chuck Welch.
Grace contrasted that level of expertise to 1969.
“All we had for training when we started it was a Red Cross First Aid Course,” he said. “It was how to bandage up people and how to put slings on, and that was it ... Basically it was not much more than you could do at home.”
Grace also recalled that patients and accident victims were not thrilled to see the Brown-McClay vehicle on the scene.
“Nobody was impressed with riding in a hearse when they were alive,” he said.
Fleming also noted that primary-care doctors were burning out responding to late night medical emergencies. Fleming said doctors and community members met to begin discussing an emergency response service, as they did in Bristol and Middlebury at about the same time.
“The people down here saw a need for it with the auto accidents and all the sick people, and the doctors were getting called in the middle of the night ... and saying you really need to go to the hospital,” Fleming said. “It actually overwhelmed some of the doctors.”
After a couple meetings, Grace said action began.
“We started looking for a vehicle,” Grace said. “They set up regulations and stuff and bylaws.”
They bought the Chevy station wagon, and space was arranged in city hall. Responders had to be within five minutes and have an extra phone. Radios were non-existent.
“People that had the phones that were on duty had to be home near the telephone ... The people would respond to city hall and get the truck and go to the call,” Fleming said. “There were no two-way radios then. So when you went to the hospital ... you showed up and knocked on the door and said, ‘I’ve got someone in the back of my ambulance.’”
In 1971, Simmonds Precision, now Goodrich Corp., donated the land for VARS’ headquarters. By 1973, a building with ambulance bays and office space was built, and VARS did have radios.
GROWING OVER THE YEARS
In 1973, VARS also added a second ambulance, a used Chevy Suburban. The fleet expanded to three in 1996. By 1984, ambulances were larger modular vans, which Fleming said are larger, last longer, and are easier to work in.
In 1984, four years after Fleming joined, VARS expanded its building, adding a classroom, storage and room for volunteers to stay at headquarters.
In 1992 came the switch to billing for the first time. Until then, the annual budget was just $50,000 and was funded by annual donations from towns, civic groups and individuals.
But the rising cost of services and number of calls created the need for expanded funding, Fleming said.
“It’s a progression thing,” he said. “People demanded more services. The equipment costs increased.”
In the past two years, VARS has switched to the practice followed elsewhere in the state and billed towns on a per capita rate. Now that figure is $4, which Fleming said is among the lowest in Vermont — the Mad River area service charges $99, according to Welch — but is still enough to support VARS’ annual $450,000 budget.
While VARS has grown, including supporting a county-wide SafeKids program operated by Welch and member Beth Bearor, some things remain unchanged: Volunteerism is at the heart of the organization.
Welch recalled the dozen of VARS members who stepped forward to drive an ambulance to the Gulf Coast a few years ago and spend days, even weeks, on their to help victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“It just blows my mind that they were willing to sacrifice their home lives and be gone for a long period of time for free,” Welch said.
Fleming and Grace said the high level VARS volunteerism helps keep the per capita cost as low as it is, and often goes above and beyond the technical call of duty.
Both were on one Addison accident call where Grace made a trip to Burlington that may not have been medically necessary.
“I was the first one there, and it was a young girl. And I ended up going clear to Burlington just holding her hand,” Grace said. “She just wouldn’t let go. I said, ‘You’ve got four people here.’ She said, ‘No, you’ve got to hold my hand.’ So I went all the way to Burlington ... I was the first one there, and she figured I was comfort for her. I think a lot of it is, when you’ve got a car accident something, a lot of it is comfort.”
Fleming said medical training includes the psychology of healing, but VARS volunteers also try to use common sense.
“If someone’s hurt of sick, you’re nice to them and treat them well, it’s part of the healing process,” he said.
The current level of 37 volunteers is less than the historic high of 45 in the 1980s, but more than the low of 30 a few year back. Fleming would like to see a few Basic EMTs step up to the Intermediate level, and is happy that a half-dozen new volunteers have recently signed on.
In all, he said VARS is “doing OK” on the volunteer front, but there is always room for more.
“I’d like to see 40 people here,” Fleming said. “It’s a little on the low end. It’s like that with every squad around here.”
Next up on VARS’ radar is an upgrade to its headquarters. Fleming said VARS needs more space for vehicles, office workers, volunteers, storage and training.
“The call volume goes up. The training needs go up. Storage, you need more storage. We’re getting bigger ambulances, because the bigger ambulances are easier to work with and they last longer,” he said. “We need to grow now for the future.”
On the drawing board is a $1 million plan that would create room for four ambulances by expanding 25 feet toward the road. It would also add a second full story, and expand the rear classroom area.
The finished product would be about 8,000 square feet, and it should meet VARS’ needs for the next 40 years, Fleming said. Membership will consider the plan next month.
Fleming said community members believe donations can cover all or most of the cost, but even if VARS had to come up a $2,000-a-month mortgage on top of increased operating costs that could reach $40,000 a year, Fleming said tweaking VARS’ billing rates would be reasonable.
“That’s a workable number,” he said. “We’re on the low end.”
Regardless of what the future holds, Grace is amazed how far VARS has come from phone calls and a station wagon parked at city hall.
“From what we started out with, it’s really grown,” Grace said. “It’s a big commitment. If they can hold 30 volunteers for the number of calls they get, it’s fantastic.”