By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — Right now, while Westport residents work, shop, relax and, even while they sleep, a committed cadre stands ready to help — every minute of every day of the year.
Not unlike police and firefighters in their commitment to protect and serve the public, this group’s mission is focused on medical emergencies.
But unlike the town’s other uniformed services, many of these people are volunteers.
They comprise a combined emergency medical services team for Westport — about 40 are members of the Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Services, who volunteer on the town’s ambulances, and a smaller group of paid emergency medical technicians, who are part of the Police Department.
On a recent Wednesday at Westport Emergency Medical Services headquarters, based at the Police Department, 50 Jesup Road, five EMTs were enjoying morning coffee, sitting in a garage next to three fully equipped ambulances.
But when an alarm was triggered, three scrambled into an ambulance. One — a specially trained driver — gunned the engine and the crew headed out to answer the emergency call: an elementary school child having an allergic reaction that could be serious.
An on-duty paramedic from Norwalk Hospital, paid by the town, jumped into another specially equipped “fly” car, and sped off to join the EMTs at the school.
Two of the EMTs remain behind at headquarters in case there is another call.
WVEMS volunteers and Police Department’s Emergency Medical Services staff have been working together for more than 40 years, responding to emergency and medical transport calls all over Westport, including those on Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway, as well as the busy Post Road. Sometimes the crews also provide mutual aid for nearby towns, which reciprocate with emergency assistance for Westport if needed.
Many WVEMS volunteers have been serving the town many years.
One EMS crew chief, William Min, now a resident of Atlanta, Ga., commutes on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to Westport since he moved to Georgia. He served as a volunteer EMT in Westport for 24 of the 28 years he lived in town, but now climbs on a plane to report for an EMT shift in town at least twice a month.
“I love going back to the community,” said Min, a corporate attorney. “I’m working with a great team of professionals.”
Different municipalities have different arrangements to provide emergency medical care, according to Marc Hartog, deputy director of Westport Emergency Medical Services. Some other communities’ fire departments also serve as emergency medical responders, he said. Some towns, especially smaller ones like Weston, have all-volunteer service, and others, like Fairfield, hire commercial companies to answer medical calls.
Westport’s arrangement with a team made up of both volunteers and paid EMTs is unusual — one of only two towns with combined emergency medical teams in the state, Hartog said.
Westport residents owe a lot to their volunteer squad, he added. Not only do the volunteers ride the ambulances, they also raise donations to purchase medical equipment and supplies — even ambulances and other vehicles used by the town EMTs.
At a recent Board of Selectwomen meeting, the board accepted a WVEMS donation of a new SUV modified to be a “fly car” for paramedics to accompany an ambulance on emergency calls, and an over-land vehicle that EMTs can use to reach a person in places where an ambulance can’t access, such as the middle of Winslow Park or local beaches, Hartog said.
“We spend a lot of money, every year we have a fundraising drive,” said Michael Burns, president of the Board of Directors of WVEMS. “We do buy all of the vehicles: six vehicles in total, including three ambulances and three fly cars for paramedics to use,” he said.
The volunteer organization is currently raising funds to buy new ambulances, he added. “The current ones are aging out. The cost last time was $180,000 [for one ambulance]. This time it’s $365,000,” and the town plans to buy three of them.
The $1.344 million earmarked in the town’s 2022-23 budget for EMS covers salaries for paid staff and the cost of Norwalk Hospital paramedics, he said, but WVEMS provides almost everything else, including medical supplies and equipment, the emergency vehicles and, of course, countless volunteer hours.
“That’s a remarkable service as opposed to taxpayer funding,” Burns said.
In addition to provide funding for equipment, the WVEMS is also looking for volunteers. The organization’s volunteers come from many walks of life, including business owners, retired people and college and high school students, according to Richard Baumblatt, an EMS crew chief. All are given several levels of training and are certified. On nights and weekends, there are likely to be more young people, including students, on duty.
Many volunteer EMTs have gone to pursue full-time careers in the medical field, according to Baumblatt and Burns.
They estimate that more than 30 doctors had been students in the WVEMS program, as well as “many, many more” in other medical professions, such as nurses, physical therapists and physician’s assistants, who received their initial medical training in the Westport ambulance corps.
Volunteers, who do not have to reside in Westport, must volunteer for a minimum of five hours per week and attend a monthly training session, Burns said. Volunteers as young as 14 are accepted for the EMR program — a first-level level training program mainly for high school students. Volunteers do not respond from their homes, but work out of the Jesup Road headquarters when on duty.
“We have a very active Youth Corps program,” Hartog said.
The current emergency medical services team in Westport, made up of both paid staff and volunteers, was officially established in 1979.
“The federal government back in the ’70s realized there was no formal system or formal training for people transporting patients or answering emergency calls — a lot of people were dying,” Hartog said.
Training courses and certification programs were established and through the years the system evolved. Patients now receive treatment as soon as EMTs are on scene. The service “is not simply a transport to the hospital” any more, he said.
Before 1975, emergency calls were often answered by funeral directors, mainly because they had hearses, the only vehicles that could accommodate an ill or injured person lying down, Hartog added.
Hartog remembered answering a call many years ago when Neil Harding, the director of Harding Funeral Home, quickly left his establishment dressed in a suit to drive the hearse to a home to pick up an ill woman.
“When we arrived at the patient’s home, she was in the kitchen with her back to us,” Hartog remembered. “She said, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know it was so bad, they sent the undertaker.’ ”
For more information about donating or volunteering for the Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Services, and to learn how to sign up for EMT classes, visit the organization’s website.
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and currently teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.