The responds to about 800 calls each year, which account for 2,200 to 2,400 man hours when you consider all of the procedure, planning and preparation that first response entails. It’s taxing on the squad’s dedicated volunteers, and the number of those shouldering the burden is dwindling.
Sitting in a darkened office at the Squad’s Spring Street headquarters, Tom Cosgrove wistfully recalled some nebulous idea of a past America where citizens committed themselves to participating in acts of public service. The notion, he admitted, similar to the wood paneling and faded wallpaper that still covers the office walls in this 1950’s-era building, is a relic.
As a member of the First Aid and Rescue Squad, Cosgrove, who serves as first lieutenant and president of the business side, understands the demands on people’s time. It’s not like it was, the military vet said. Today people have multiple jobs, extra family obligations, more demands on their time. The resulting smaller crews, calls to out-of-town rescue units for help, and concern over staffing have come to be expected, he supposed.
The irony’s not lost on Cosgrove. As it stands, it's the rescue squad that might be the one needing saving.
“The honest answer is, we’re desperate. My pitch (to prospective volunteers) is to help your community,” he said. “Out time continues to disappear into work and other life obligations, but we need a core of folks who can see past that. Whatever drives you, we need that.”
According to Cosgrove, the rescue squad has about 40 members, though he said that number could be deceiving. Regular squad members are required to attend at least 10 percent of all emergency calls. Lifetime members, however, are free to attend as many, or as few, calls as they want to. What’s left is a smaller number of actual working volunteers and of that number Cosgrove said there are only about five or six volunteers that are able to respond to as many as 25 percent of the emergency calls that come in.
The problem is especially apparent in the daytime when most of the squad’s volunteers – Cosgrove said a majority of the volunteers are between the ages of 25 and 35 – are at work. On the very best days there are three people available, but often it’s a short crew of just two people. On those occasions when the calls come in one after the other, the squad, which needs to work with speed and precision to help save lives, is stretched thin.
“The calls never come evenly. If we ran three calls a day, that would be something we could handle easily,” Cosgrove, who has been with the squad since 2004, said. “But some weeks it’s quiet, and then there are times when there are seven or eight calls a day.
“When you’re making your eighth call of the day and you’re trying to extricate a woman from a car wreck and she’s fighting you, it’s hard to get ready for that next call.”
Cosgrove is worried that Red Bank’s volunteer tradition could come to an end if more recruits aren’t found. The problem of dipping volunteer numbers isn’t isolated to just Red Bank, either, he said. Tinton Falls has had to resort to a paid day crew to help alleviate poor daytime response issues. Oakhurst is expected to go that route soon, too.
With assistance from other nearby companies from towns such as Little Silver and Fair Haven, Red Bank service hasn’t begun to suffer, yet. But those squads are hurting too, Cosgrove said, and someday there may be too few volunteers to help in times of trouble.
Someday, Cosgrove believes most towns will have to ditch their volunteer operations for paid EMTs.
“Deep down in my heart of hearts I know it’s going to happen some day,” he said. “We’re trying to stave it off as long as we can."
The trouble for volunteers is in both the demands it puts on the participants and the training required. Cosgrove said EMT training has increased in recent years from about 120 hours to more than 200. Then there is the cost of the training. Training funds are limited, Cosgrove said, as the state under then-Gov. Jon Corzine pulled monies set aside for training to help balance the budget. With limited funds it’s harder to rationalize sending every recruit with a passing interest to get training.
Then there’s the actual job. Sprained ankles and stubbed toes are one thing – and yes, those calls do come in – but then there are the wrecks, the strokes and heart attacks, the serious injuries. You see some bad things, he said. People die in transport, people die while you’re working on them. The only recourse when things like that happen is to go home and tell your family you love them, he said.
Most of the longtime members of the squad only serve actively for about 10 years before they burn out. People join the squad because they want to play the hero, Cosgrove said, but that will only take you so far.
“EMS is a tough thing to do as a volunteer. People do fall by the wayside,” he said. “It’s a stress thing.”
But for all of the job’s stresses, those who continue providing service as volunteer EMTs do it because they’re compelled by a sense of altruism, of a need to give back to the community of which they belong.
And, in the end, they’ve got each other.
“It can be hard at times,” Red Bank First Aid and Rescue Squad Volunteer Melissa Lauterwasser said. “But we have a great support system with each other. We’re all very close; you could call us family.
“It can be hard the things we see, the things we deal with. But, if you can help one person, it’s worth it.”
Though it’s a tough job, Cosgrove hopes the squad can encourage recruits to join their ranks by offering them the chance to help their fellow man. With an upcoming open house acting as a quasi-recruitment drive, the Red Bank First Aid and Rescue Squad wants to educate residents about a service in their community they might have otherwise taken for granted.
“We’re looking for somebody who has that little extra bit of drive,” Cosgrove said. “That spark.”