The Westerly Ambulance Corps, Inc.
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Westerly has one of the nation’s oldest volunteer ambulance services
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By Published January 06. 2017 8:08PM | Updated January 06. 2017 8:14PM By Lindsay Boyle Day staff writer
January 7, 2017

Westerly — Times were different in 1917, when Dr. Frank Payne, encouraged by the American Red Cross, set out to establish a group of men who could respond should a shoreline emergency or industrial calamity arise.

Payne used ads in the Westerly Sun and door-to-door canvassing to assemble volunteers. The corps raised funds to help supplement its work by holding Friday night dances. The organization’s first ambulance, a Ford Model T-style wagon acquired in 1920, looked a little more like a hearse than a unit meant to transport the sick.

Needless to say, the Westerly Ambulance Corps has come a long way.

“It’s to the point now where the back of the ambulance is exactly what you would get in an emergency room, and the skills our paramedics have today equal the skills of nurses and doctors,” said Philip Gingerella Sr., chairman of the organization’s Anniversary Committee.

Considered one of the oldest, if not the oldest, private, nonprofit, volunteer ambulance organizations in the country, the corps on Friday hosted the first of several events slated to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Friday’s event, which started at 6 p.m. at the group’s 30 Chestnut St. headquarters, featured the unveiling of Westerly Ambulance’s anniversary ambulance, logo and uniforms.

Other events include a memorial service at Payne’s Ashaway, R.I., gravesite, an open house with tours and a special appearance in the Westerly-Pawcatuck Columbus Day Parade.

Through it all, the focus will be on highlighting the heritage of the storied organization.

According to Gingerella, the Red Cross chose Westerly to take part in its pilot project — the goal of which was in part to supplement paid hospital and city forces with local volunteer ones — because of its ideal location between Boston and New York City.

Although the Red Cross was unable to immediately verify if Westerly was one of the two towns it first approached — many of its records are at the National Archives rather than in-house — many publications suggest such independent volunteer services didn’t flourish until the mid- to late 1920s.

In any event, the Westerly corps faced its first local challenge less than two years into its existence.

As the flu pandemic of 1918 made its way into town, the organization’s 30 or so volunteer members, trained only in basic first aid administration, rushed to set up a makeshift 50-bed hospital in the former Beach Street School. Using a donated pickup truck, they transported about 600 people there during a three-month period, according to Gingerella.

“That was the first major test and they came through that with flying colors,” said Gingerella, who was an active member of the corps in the 1980s and 1990s.

The next event of notoriety was the Hurricane of 1938, during which the corps was tasked with rescuing the people it could and recovering the bodies of those it couldn’t.

The 1950s kicked off a trend of forward progress that would continue unabated. The name Westerly Ambulance Corps was born. The rescue squad was established. The corps’ first permanent home was built.

More than a half-century later, the group continues to fight off challenges in order to improve each year, according to corps President Ronald MacDonald III.

MacDonald was 14 when he joined at the rank of messenger. He saw advanced life support equipment added to the organization’s fleet. He watched as the group established a state-of-the-art regional dispatch center. He helped members make the switch to a new headquarters in 2002. He responded to thousands of calls and climbed the ranks along the way.

For MacDonald, the most striking memory is that of a 16-year-old who had doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire.
“I can still remember like it was yesterday,” MacDonald wrote in an email. “You can never suppress some of the sights, smells and sounds no matter how much you try.”

These days, MacDonald said funding and personnel are the corps’ biggest challenges, especially as the number of calls to which the organization responds continues to increase. This year, they had just more than 6,000. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was closer to 1,000.

The lack of volunteers available during the regular workday is part of the reason the group is now quasi-volunteer, with about 12 paid members and 60 volunteers.

As for funding, MacDonald said the amount of fees that aren’t paid to the corps and end up in collections “would make your jaw drop.”
Still, he pointed to a grant recently awarded to the corps — one that will help it establish a mobile-integrated health program — as a sign of success and continued growth.

“I care deeply for this organization and have put 30 years of my life into it,” MacDonald said. “I feel an obligation to do my best to continue the work of our founder, past leaders and the over 1,000 volunteers throughout our history to keep moving the corps forward.”

Town Council President Jamie Silvestri, who also has spent time volunteering with the corps, called it “a crown jewel.”
“Obviously providing emergency services to all of our townspeople is invaluable, but they also are an organization that operates outside of the town’s tax budget,” he said, calling that a “huge relief.”

“I’m looking forward to the next 100 years,” he said.

l.boyle@theday.com

The 1918 crew of the Westerly Red Cross Sanitary Unit, now known as the Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Courtesy of Philip Gingerella Sr.)
The 1918 crew of the Westerly Red Cross Sanitary Unit, now known as the Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Courtesy of Philip Gingerella Sr.)
Dr. Frank Payne, founder of the Westerly Red Cross Sanitary Unit, now known as the Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Courtesy of Philip Gingerella Sr.)
Dr. Frank Payne, founder of the Westerly Red Cross Sanitary Unit, now known as the Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Courtesy of Philip Gingerella Sr.)
 
The Westerly Red Cross Sanitary Unit's first vehicle, a Ford Model T-style wagon. The unit is now known as the Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Courtesy of Philip Gingerella Sr.)
The Westerly Red Cross Sanitary Unit's first vehicle, a Ford Model T-style wagon. The unit is now known as the Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Courtesy of Philip Gingerella Sr.)
Anniversary Committee Chairman Philip Gingerella wipes smudges off the new ambulance while he and fellow members of the committee prepare for the 100th anniversary ceremony of The Westerly Ambulance Corps at their headquarters Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. The ambulance later was draped in black plastic to be unveiled during the ceremony. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Anniversary Committee Chairman Philip Gingerella wipes smudges off the new ambulance while he and fellow members of the committee prepare for the 100th anniversary ceremony of The Westerly Ambulance Corps at their headquarters Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. The ambulance later was draped in black plastic to be unveiled during the ceremony. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
 
Members of The Westerly Ambulance Corps check out the preparations for the corps' 100th anniversary ceremony while at their headquarters Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. The photo on the podium is of Dr. Frank Payne, founder of The Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Members of The Westerly Ambulance Corps check out the preparations for the corps' 100th anniversary ceremony while at their headquarters Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. The photo on the podium is of Dr. Frank Payne, founder of The Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
A 1974 crew of the Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Courtesy of Philip Gingerella Sr.)
A 1974 crew of the Westerly Ambulance Corps. (Courtesy of Philip Gingerella Sr.)
 

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