By KATHRYN FLAGG
VERGENNES — When Ann Rivers, Richard Catchapaw and Anthony Korda got the call from Vergennes Area Rescue Squad (VARS) Operations Officer Chuck Welch last Friday afternoon, the three volunteer rescue workers had less than an hour to make up their minds. Were they ready and willing, Welch wanted to know, to push off for the Gulf Coast — and could they do it in three hours’ time?
With Hurricane Gustav set to bear down on Louisiana and Mississippi, Welch told them, the call had gone out for out-of-state assistance, and American Medical Response (AMR), the private company responsible for contracting emergency response teams for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tapped the Vergennes crew for help.
The VARS ambulance crew was one of 11 Vermont rescue crews to head south in preparation for Gustav’s landfall. (A mechanical breakdown in Virginia meant that 10 Vermont ambulances arrived by Saturday evening.)
Though they were given just a few minutes to make the decision, all three responders — Korda, from the Town Line First Response team in Bridport, and VARS volunteers Rivers and Catchapaw — pushed off on the 3,000-mile trek to Mississippi last Friday, just over four hours after VARS received the initial call from AMR.
“They drove straight through,” Welch said, and arrived in Jackson, Miss. — a staging area for out-of-state ambulance crews — on Saturday night around 6 p.m.
“We’re pretty fortunate to have dedicated folks that are able to drop everything and go,” he said.
Gustav is not the first natural disaster that has sent VARS volunteers south to chip in while hurricanes chart their course for the states along the Gulf of Mexico.
Their swift departure from Vergennes ran smoothly, all things considered, in part because of the rescue squad’s prior experience deploying for natural disasters. The squad first sent rescue personnel south for hurricane assistance in 2005, when Hurricane Rita battered the Gulf Coast just weeks after Hurricane Katrina tore through the region.
The squad sent one ambulance to Texas at the time. The initial volunteers who drove the rig cross-country — Rivers and Ferrisburgh resident Brian Goodyear — were replaced by two more waves of volunteers, adding up to a 40-day deployment for the ambulance.
The positive experience VARS volunteers had during that trip not only readied them for a speedy dispatch when disaster threatened again this week, but also served to rally support for out-of-state assistance.
“It was just an overwhelming feeling to know that you’re helping somebody who’s in desperate, desperate need,” said Welch.
“We’d never been mobilized like that before in the history of the squad,” he said. “All I can say is that, from my standpoint, there was a great deal of satisfaction in being able to help another state in their need.”
According to Goodyear — who still volunteers with VARS — the list of responders willing to deploy in the case of a major natural disaster grew substantially after Rita volunteers returned.
But the director of Emergency Medical Services for Vermont, Dan Manz, thinks the willingness to help vulnerable communities in other parts of the country is simply an outgrowth of a deeply ingrained tradition of “mutual aid” among Vermont emergency response teams.
“Ambulances around Vermont do mutual aid every day of the week,” Manz said. “Everybody helps each other out.”
For example, Manz said, it’s not a rare occurrence for a VARS team to “run up” to help out in Charlotte.
“I really think because Vermont has that tradition of supplying and receiving mutual aid daily … that that’s just sort of the way our people think the system works,” Manz said. “This doesn’t look much different to them, except the mutual aid request came from much further away.”
Though Gustav has not appeared to inflict the level of damage that many local and state officials in Louisiana and Mississippi had feared, the VARS team has still been hard at work assisting with evacuations and triage.
They were initially sent to Gulfport, Miss., where Welch said they were “put right to work” on a triage team.
When weather conditions worsened, the crew was pulled back five or 10 miles north of Gulfport, where they sat out the brunt of the storm and waited for the tornadoes to calm down. On Tuesday, the team was mobilized again. Cell phone coverage is still in place, meaning that the team can check in with Welch three times a day from Mississippi.
According to Welch, the VARS team is especially suited to long-range assistance projects like the Gustav efforts because of their size and resources, which include three in-house ambulances.
“We’ve been pretty successful with maintaining a crew base in town and being able to do something extra,” he said.
That, said Manz, is one of the crucial aspects of organizing an out-of-state response effort. Contracts for individual ambulances — and compensation for crew members and rescue organizations — were arranged directly between rescue squads and AMR, but state officials were busy making sure that 911-coverage statewide would not be adversely affected by the deployments.
“Did it leave some organizations thin? You bet,” Manz said. “Are there going to be organizations that are sucking it up, working extra shifts, stretching at home? You bet. Is essential 911-coverage in place? Absolutely.”
Welch said that some of the funding from AMR will be used to compensate crew members for their time, but he also hopes that some funding can be put toward a rig replacement fund. The same ambulance that went to serve in the wake of Hurricane Rita was sent south again last weekend — and the 3,000-mile one-way trip takes its toll.
“It’s a lot of wear and tear on the truck,” Welch said. “Our trucks aren’t used to running that way.”
But that wear and tear does not go unnoticed.
During the Rita expedition, Goodyear said, Texans expressed deep gratitude when they saw that an ambulance from as far away as Vermont had turned out to assist during the disaster.
In Mississippi, Vermont ambulance crews are meeting that same response.
In an e-mail that has circulated among emergency personnel throughout the state, Gulfport resident Brad McCoy wrote about seeing a fleet of emergency vehicles traveling down the road.
“I was thinking that there must have been a bad accident until I saw ‘VT’ on the side of one of them,” McCoy wrote. “That’s when I realized they were here for Hurricane Gustav. A simple ‘thank you’ seems so inadequate to convey the deep feeling of gratitude I have for your help in our time of need. This is very much appreciated.”