For volunteers with Washington Ambulance Association, serving community is ‘a calling’

WASHINGTON — It was Feb. 14, 1942 and Washington Ambulance Association received its very first call. A member of its founding organization — The Lions Club of Washington — drove a patient to Waterbury Hospital early that Sunday morning.

The association, an independent nonprofit organization at 109 Bee Brook Road, will celebrate its 80th anniversary in February.

Since then, equipment, training and communication has changed.

“When I first started, the emergency call was to make a phone tree to see who was available to make a transport,” said 66-year-old Stephen Wright, the association’s longest standing member who joined in 1979. “They would put together a crew that way.”

It’s the primary emergency ambulance service for the town of Washington and provides mutual aid to New Milford, Roxbury, Warren, Kent and Bantam.

The association is an all-volunteer organization, providing all services for free. There is no billing to the patient or to their insurance company.

“Please don't let the ‘volunteer’ title fool you,” said Washington resident Heidi Johnson, who will take over as chief on Jan. 1. “This is not just a hobby for us.”

Fundraising efforts go toward paying operating expenses, purchasing major equipment and capital expenses such as ambulances. The support of residents and past patients helps them to continue their services.

If hospital services are needed, the association transports people to New Milford Hospital. Occasionally, they send people to Danbury Hospital, Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury, Waterbury Hospital and Sharon Hospital.

Meetings are the first Tuesday of the month. There are 24 members on the roster, ranging from age 17 to their 70s. The roster is “rich with life experiences,” Johnson said. “Everybody brings something different to the table.”

‘A calling’

Johnson, who has been a volunteer with the association since 2013, has worn many hats, most recently instructor and assistant chief.

She referred to one of the association’s taglines, “we’re in it for the outcome, not the income.”

“We really truly do consider this a calling,” she said.

For Johnson, the calling came from her late father Richard Johnson, who was her role model growing up. He was a member of the Washington Volunteer Fire Department for 63 years

“My dad inspired me to do this,” said Johnson, who is also a photographer and EMT for New Milford’s ambulance service. She was previously a member of Warren’s volunteer ambulance service.

She added when both her parents faced serious medical issues around the same time, she was their caregiver and acquired a lot of medical knowledge, which she used to become a member of the association.

“It was the obvious choice,” said Johnson, adding it’s been “one of the the greatest decisions of my life.”

Johnson was also influenced by Marcia Schultz, a former Warren’s ambulance chief who died three years ago.

“I really see her as my mentor,” Johnson said. “Once I became more involved in EMS, she asked me if I would be assistant chief in Warren. She started to help me to gain the confidence in a leadership position and then that gravitated toward me becoming an instructor because that’s what she did as well.”

Wright, a New Preston resident who works as a carpenter and woodworker, became an EMT in 1976 because he “thought it would be helpful with applying for membership in ski patrol,” he said.

He had been a lifeguard at Shepaug Valley High School in Washington and had received advanced first aid training. He lived across the street from the barn where the ambulance was kept in, and was recruited at age 16 to ride on it. He said he joined before the state required EMT certification in order to work on an ambulance.

He’s since served 14 years as chief and is the training lieutenant, providing continuing education instruction for members.

He now rides on a few calls a week and has gone on as many as 200 calls a year. He has seen it all — falls, motor vehicle accidents, and breathing and cardiac issues to those who are very ill.

While on calls, he has helped his neighbors, old classmates and clients.

“They are usually very grateful to see a familiar face,” he said.

He said the biggest change he has seen “is the knowledge base and skill level required for EMTs has increased.”

He has observed large equipment changes, as well.

The original emergency transport vehicles were Cadillac ambulances, which are modified hearses, he said.

“It was the only vehicle out there that people could be laid down in,” Wright said. “Now we have essentially a truck with a box on the back. We have lots of room to work in and room to carry a lot of equipment.”

Now, all members carry two-way radios and pagers.

“Dispatch will give us the address and nature of the call,” he said.

He plans to continue volunteering “until I can’t do it anymore. The satisfaction I get out of it is helping people who really need help,” he said.

The pandemic

When COVID-19 hit, “it was like a call to arms,” Johnson said. “We had to be committed to not only putting in the time but also making sure we’re protecting ourselves so that then we can protect everybody else. We had a plan and this was really a turning point in our organization.”

From the middle of March 2020 to at least through the end of the year, the association had a core group of eight volunteers.

“We wanted to ensure that we absolutely could provide at least one staffed ambulance for emergencies 24-7,” Johnson said.

Older members and those with preexisting health issues were deemed “at risk,” Johnson said, and while they were never excluded from responding to calls, they made sure those members only went on calls where they were completely safe or comfortable.

Eventually, in December of 2020, as members became eligible for vaccinations against COVID-19, they starting to bring themselves back into the fold.

She added the amount of calls during the pandemic was “never more than anything we would handle. We did not have major breakouts here in this town.”

In 2020, the association had its highest number of calls — 403. Prior to that, for five years, the association had been averaging 380 calls a year. However, as of late December, they’ve already broke that record, with 406 calls.

Johnson said she thinks that’s due to population growth during COVID.

“We’ve always had a good amount of weekenders, here,” she said. “But a lot of people have started to spend more time here, so that could be a contributing factor.”

She said the town’s median age seems to be steadily increasing, and older people tend to get more health emergencies.

A look toward the future

The association is building a regional training center and plans to move out of the space it shares with the fire department and into its own headquarters.

“This is going to be not only a benefit for the town of Washington but also for our surrounding towns because not every service in our surrounding area has instructors in their core,” Johnson said. “There are only limited opportunities to actually take the training to become a part of EMS.”

She said being able to offer instruction helps the association recruit new members for themselves and is also a way to help to recruit members for other towns.

“The towns of Roxbury and Warren have gotten some new members as a result of our instruction,” Johnson said.

For more information on the Washington Ambulance Association, visit the town of Washington’s website, search “Washington Ambulance Association” on Facebook or send an email to info@washingtonambulance.org.

sfox@milfordmirror.com 203-948-9802