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Jul 17, 2019

100 Years of Saving Lives: Westerly Ambulance Corps celebrates anniversary
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By Catherine Hewitt Sun staff writer
September 23, 2017

WESTERLY — A Life Star helicopter touched down in the field behind St. Pius X School Saturday around 1 p.m. and when the blades stopped whirling, children and their parents were allowed to take a closer look and ask questions.

“From here to Rhode Island Hospital in Providence is about 15 minutes — this can go 150 miles per hour,” said pilot Sean Rorke, standing on the grass outside of the aircraft. “Summers are busier. Sometimes we go on two calls a day, but other times we go five or six days with nothing.”

The Life Star is based in Norwich at Backus Hospital, which is part of Hartford HealthCare. Crews manning this helicopter and one other answer 90 to 115 calls per month in the summer and 60 to 70 calls in the winter, said RN and EMT Laura Thomasson, who was also on board

“We work 12-hour shifts,” Thomasson said. “We have a nurse and a respiratory therapist on board; it’s based on an ICU model, to bring critical care out to the field.”

The Life Star landing was part of the Westerly Ambulance Corps’ 100th anniversary open house that included tours of the emergency vehicles and headquarters, demonstrations of emergency equipment, a visit from the Westerly police K-9 unit, a lunch of grilled hotdogs, and a history photo-montage showing the corps’ vehicles from 1917 to the present.

Danielle Latimer, of Ashaway, brought her three children — Leah, 6, Paul, 4, and Colton, 3, to witness the helicopter landing and visit the corps’ facility.

“They just love looking inside the rescue vehicles and they knew the helicopter was landing here and they love that,” she said. “That’s all they play with at home — the helicopters and fire trucks and rescue vehicles; and it’s good for them to see the people that do it and what they look like.”

The corps is the oldest private volunteer ambulance corps in the country. Known as the Westerly Sanitary Corps until 1955, the organization was founded by Dr. Frank I. Payne, of Westerly, a physician, as a regional American Red Cross medical unit.

Philip B. Gingerella Sr., who chairs the 100th anniversary committee, said the longevity of the corps reflects a tradition of volunteerism in Westerly.

“I think this is a good, strong community where something like this can thrive. One hundred years is a long time to keep going as a volunteer organization — I think history is big, I think traditions are big,” he said. “There are lots of families here who are third or fourth generation members.”

Employment shifts in the region have made finding enough volunteers difficult, and in 1993 the organization decided to hire a paid staff for daytime ambulance runs. The organization now has about 20 employees and about 60 volunteers, Gingerella said.

“It’s tough to find volunteers to come out for calls during the day,” he said. “So there are paid crews during the day and they are supplemented with volunteers if there’s multiple calls, and then at night it’s volunteers.”

In December, the Corps changed to two 12-hour shifts in response to the community’s increased needs, said Assistant Chief Michael Brancato.

“That’s the biggest change in the last 10 years because of the amount of calls from Westerly and Pawcatuck,” he said. “We’re averaging about 6,000 calls for service a year with the highest call volume during the summer months, especially down in Misquamicut.”

Volunteer member Thomas Gibney, who joined in 1971 when he was 29 years old, said the requirements for volunteers have expanded dramatically from the time he started.

“When I first came in it was a basic first aid class to the point now where you’ve got to be an EMT,” he said.

Industries in the area used to allow workers to go on ambulance calls in the middle of a work shift, but the workplace is much different now, he said.

“You had Harris, Bostitch, Yardney, and the people in those factories allowed our volunteers to leave their job to go out and take care of an emergency run, but they’re gone,” he said. “Everybody has to work but jobs are less flexible.”

Over time, emergency vehicles also needed greater capacity to transport ever-increasing amounts of equipment, changing from the “limousine” chassis to the box-type trucks in the mid-1970s, he said.

“We didn’t have enough room to carry the equipment and as time went on the vans got larger,” he said. “Today you’ve almost got an emergency room on wheels.”

The open house is the third of five events commemorating the anniversary that included a kickoff celebration in January, and a private memorial service in June. Two more events — the Westerly Columbus Day Parade on Oct. 8; and a banquet on Nov. 4. — are to come.

100 years by the numbers

53 ambulances

3 heavy rescue vehicles

1,000 members

2 organization names

3 headquarters

250,000 calls for service

13 commanders/chiefs

80 presidents

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