Just Breathe

Editor’s note: This story was published exclusively in The Jefferson Chronicle DIGEST magazine prior to being made available online. To receive the DIGEST magazine when it is released digitally, subscribe free.

As part of a series, The Jefferson Chronicle looks at the services provided by local volunteer organizations and the roles they play in assisting Jefferson residents.

The Jefferson Township Rescue Squad (JTRS), headquartered on Route 15 South in Lake Hopatcong, takes approximately 800-1,000 calls per year. Last year alone, there were about 50 cases of opioid overdose. From car accidents and sports injuries to chest pain and more, the squad responds promptly with its fleet of ambulances and volunteer members. The organization has about 60 members and more are needed, especially for daytime hours.

Albie Garcia, who was named chief in January, spoke to The Jefferson Chronicle about his goals and objectives in this new role. He plans to continue with the groundwork already laid by former chiefs. He also wants to focus on communication with residents, as evidenced by the increase in social media posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Garcia credits his son, Jake, for the amplified presence. Jake, 20, recently passed his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) test and is part of the communication subcommittee.

2019 chief Albie Garcia and assistant chief Ron Anzalone look forward to some new volunteers. (Photo: April Leaver)

Garcia is focused on training as well. “We can always do better. I believe there is always room for improvement.” He plans to learn how to be more effective by watching accident scenes and streamlining workflows. Continuing education, which is provided by the squad at no charge, is a priority for the members.

What Happens When the Squad Lacks Volunteers?

Finding volunteers is one of the toughest challenges for the team. The ambulance squad from St. Clare’s Hospital assists in filling gaps, but this comes at a price for patients, both financially and in terms of time. Staffing with local volunteers allows a quick response to local incidents which, in turn, produces better outcomes. In addition, the rescue squad provides a free service to residents, whereas service from St. Clare’s results in a bill to the patient’s insurance carrier or to the patient directly. High deductible plans or out-of-pocket costs could leave the patient with a hefty responsibility down the road.

Are You an Adrenaline Junkie, Caretaker, or Behind-the-Scenes Type of Person?

There is room for all personality types at the JTRS. For the adrenaline junkie, there is the rush of excitement in the scrambling to respond when a call comes in. Volunteers must be able to expect the unexpected. For example, an elderly man who recently had a medical event while driving crossed over the double yellow line and hit another car head-on in Augusta. According to assistant chief Ron Anzalone, the man was alert while being transported to the hospital by the Blue Ridge Rescue Squad. When he took a turn for the worse, they called for a medevac. The JTRS and the medevac planned to meet Blue Ridge at Lakeside Field in Lake Hopatcong.

Garcia told The Chronicle, “The helicopter had a hard time landing. It was very windy, and you could see the pilot was struggling.” When the copter finally landed, Blue Ridge had not yet arrived. Anzalone could see the ambulance stopped on the side of the road. It turned out that the 81-year old man, who had been alert for most of the transport, took another downward turn. Teams performed CPR for more than 45 minutes with no luck in reviving him. There is not enough room on this particular type of medevac to fly with someone in cardiac arrest, so the pilot who had had such difficulty in landing left without his passenger. Volunteers never know how a situation will play out; sometimes there is a good outcome, and sometimes there is not.

For the caretaker type, the JTRS is an obvious choice. Recently, a three-year-old who dislocated his elbow was in pain and scared. Squad members had to handle the situation with “kid gloves” so that they could medically attend to the child while keeping him comfortable.

A behind-the-scenes person is also essential to the team. Cadets/apprentices are responsible for providing the necessary equipment to first responders and EMTs. They do not have to perform medical procedures, but provide supplies quickly to the personnel who do. Drivers are equally important to ensure that all passengers arrive to and from a location safely. This is a good option for those who are not sure of their healing abilities, and specialized courses in driving techniques are provided. (Chief Garcia started as a driver six years ago.)

Jefferson Township Rescue Squad member Shawn Cooney showing how the new “self-loading” stretcher works in one of the squad’s three ambulances. (Photo: Erin Ackerly)

What Shifts and Commitments Are Needed?

The squad is in dire need of daytime volunteers, but will gladly accept people for any shift. Although a minimum of six hours per week is required, there is no minimum time to a shift. Volunteers must either live close to the headquarters or be on site when on duty. If they are at home during their shift, they must arrive at the base within five minutes, or the rig will leave without them. No experience is required; all training is provided along with uniforms. Bottom line: There is no outlay of cash to volunteer.

Children as young as 16 can become cadets or apprentices, who assist with getting stretchers and supplies while they learn. Some students start volunteering before making a decision about a medical career. It provides them an opportunity to confirm that they are cut out for the medical profession before dumping thousands of dollars into schooling. Volunteerism also assists with college applications, because service is often preferred or even required by schools.

There is no maximum age; currently, the squad’s oldest volunteer is 67.

What Are the Benefits?

New members of the rescue squad become part of something larger than themselves. The dedication and commitment provide a sense of satisfaction while assisting someone in need. Although births are the happiest times, deaths are inevitable. Sometimes a volunteer can only help someone long enough for loved ones to say goodbye. But those moments are precious and necessary for family members.

Volunteers also become part of an extended family. Garcia told The Jefferson Chronicle, “We argue, we laugh, we cry – we are a family.” Off-duty squad members are often seen together at local restaurants, and one of their favorites is nicknamed the “substation.”

For both patients and staff, Garcia’s mantra is “just breathe.” It helps clear the mind to focus on what is important.

Those interested in learning more, joining the JTRS family, or donating to the squad can visit the website or call 973-663-1211. Follow the rescue squad on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Although Jefferson is one town with one future, operations and needs differ between the Lake Hopatcong and Oak Ridge sections. Our next segment will look at the Milton First Aid Squad and its new chief, James Perrier.

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