Mahwah Company Number Four Volunteer Ambulance Corps
by John W. Bristow, Mahwah Township Historian, using materials provided by Janice McClanahan and the Corps, 1996
Some notes on its history at the time of its 25th anniversary
The Mahwah Company No. 4 Ambulance Corps was organized in March 1971 by members of the Mahwah Fire Company No. 4 Volunteer fire Department. Preliminary meetings had been called in January of that year by William Girvin, James Varner and Glen Mabie. They appreciated the service given to Fardale by the Fire Company #1 Ambulance and Rescue Squad but believed that the eight mile distance between Fardale and the Miller Road Fire House so delayed the arrival of emergency services as to constitute a threat to lives of those injured. Prior to this time many calls in the Fardale section had been covered by Ambulance Corps from Ramsey, Allendale and Franklin Lakes. About thirty persons attended the original organizational meeting, about half of whom were women. At that time women were not permitted to join the Company No. 1 Squad. The group decided to form their own company but they had no ambulance, no trained personnel and no money. They set to work energetically.
They applied for a Certificate of Need from the State, a necessary preliminary to organizing a new Ambulance Corps, searched for a used ambulance for sale and began a fund-raising campaign to supplement a small grant from the Fire Company. When a suitable ambulance, a two-tone, green air-conditioned 1968 Cadillac, was located, the group secured a $10,000 loan from a nearby bank, secured by second mortgages on five of the members homes. The were pleased that the rig, which had belonged to the Rahway First Aid Squad, could be renamed by changing only the first and last letters of Rahway into Mahwah. The Wyckoff Ambulance Corps donated most of the first aid equipment for the new vehicle. Assisted by a first aid instructor from Fire Company No. 1, the new corp members undertook a ten-week course in basic and advanced First aid and CPR. Some of the members served with the Mahwah Squad as practical training for their new venture. Since the Fardale Fire Company was just completing an extension on their Firehouse, they were given enough space in the garage for their ambulance, a desk and a small closet as their new home.
Even before the members had completed their first aid training in May, the corps, using Fire Department personnel, responded to their first call, on April 30, 1971. They treated the victim of an automobile accident on Campgaw Road. Their second call was to help a worker at the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant who had broken his leg in falling off a truck dock. That first year the Corps responded to sixty-one emergency calls. Most were in their home district, that part of Mahwah south of Darlington Avenue. They aided the Company #1 Squad in emergencies requiring more than one ambulance and offered mutual-aid to other towns on their border. Within one year of the purchase, the ambulance was paid for. A fund-raising drive in the fall of 1971 was supplemented by a cake sale at the Fire House on election day and solicitations at Darlington County Park, the location of many of their calls during that first summer.
The ambulance got heavy use during the first years of the Corp’s existence and became increasingly unreliable. More than once after delivering a patient to the hospital, it broke down on the way back and had to be towed. Mrs. Janice McClanahan, the only charter member still on active duty with the Corps in 1996, recalls that they were lucky that it never broke down on the way to an emergency or the hospital. Former Corps Commander Pat Ryder reported that she kept the rig at her home during its last days, constantly plugged into one of her family’s electric outlets so that it would be ready when called upon.
In August 1975 the group traded in the old ambulance for a new, fully equipped $24,000 Cadillac, without having to put up their homes as collateral. Since the vehicle responded to an average of 140 calls, involving 1000 hours of the volunteer time and logging over 4,000 miles each year, the norm was to trade in an ambulance after three years of service.
It soon became obvious that the Corps needed its own home. Although the Corps is completely owned by its members and is not a part of the Township governmental structure, the Town offered land behind the Fardale Firehouse and money to build a separate building. The original plans called for a single story building and money was appropriated for this. The Corps decided that they would need more space and undertook to add a second story to house training and meeting spaces. The new building eventually cost $420,000 of which the Township paid $350,000. (The Township Council is said to have promised to pay the additional $70,000, but failed to do so.) The Corps undertook much of the finishing work in the building, the landscaping and planting and securing furnishing and equipment. Money was raised by rummage sales, bake sales and asking for donations at Darlington Park.
Members and local firms donated equipment and supplies or supplied them at or below cost. Some furniture was even sought from home-owners who had put them out for the garbage. The result was what has been described as the most beautiful and efficient ambulance corps building in the state.
In time the second Cadillac was traded in on a Yankee Coach Modular Ambulance. Presently the Corps has two walk-in Modular ambulances, a 1986 P & L Custom and a 1994 Road rescue unit. Each can accommodate more than one patient, and each is equipped with radios and cellular phones. They cost over $100,000 each.
Through the years the Corps has responded to many types of emergencies including gunshot and knife wounds, automobile accidents, suicides, CPR calls, drowning, burn victims, psychological emergencies, poisoning and unexpected births. Among the more notable emergencies to which the group responded in the early days were a plane crash in Darlington Park (1972), a gas explosion which demolished a house on Franklin Turnpike (1979), the fire which destroyed the Home and Store News Building in Ramsey (1979), and the breakdown of the Campgaw Ski area lift which stranded twenty people in the air on a cold night (1975). Janice McClanahan remembers as her favorite call the one in which she assisted in the birth of Melissa Lynn Holtman in the ambulance on Wyckoff Avenue on May 22, 1985.
More recent times have brought new responsibilities to the Corps. In addition to calls from Fardale itself and Campgaw and Darlington Parks, they respond to calls from Ramapo Reservation, the Police and Fire Academy and the northbound lane of Route 287. That new Interstate Highway has already involved the Corps in some notable emergencies such as the accident in August, 1994 with one fatality and six injured which closed the highway for four hours, and the emergency which was caused by a Propane tanker truck which slid off the connection with the Thruway in Suffern on January 8, 1995. The group also does mutual-aid with Franklin Lakes, Ramsey and Mahwah Corps #1 as well. The most stressful case which the Corps took part in was the fire fight which broke out between rival gangs at Pleasure Land in Oakland in 1985, according to McClanahan. The most annoying case involved a call during the night during a severe snow storm when a patient claimed difficulty in breathing but seemingly only wanted to be taken to the hospital for scheduled surgery on time. He said he didn’t want to leave his car in the parking lot at the hospital during a storm.
The Ambulance Corps belongs to its members, and depends on community support to keep going. The Township subsidizes their work with $35,000 annually. From this and private contributions, the group must pay their bills, buy new equipment, provide insurance and save for new ambulances. The Township has recently contributed a defibrillator to the Corps for cardiac arrest cases. Unlike private ambulances, Company #4 does not charge anyone for their services.
The biggest difficulty facing Volunteer Ambulance Corps #4 has been maintaining enough trained personnel to keep the corps going. Although twenty-eight of an original thirty members initially received training, that number soon was reduced to thirteen. Fardale is not heavily populated and the population is highly mobile, with few families to respond to calls during the day. It was during the day when the women members proved so essential. Ron Stirnberg, an early corps member was quoted as saying “Here [in Fardale] it’s the women who roll the ambulance.” As time went on training requirements became more and more rigorous. Every member who rides the ambulance must be an Emergency Medical Technician. This involves over 100 hours of training, which must be renewed every three years. CPR training must be taken every year. Equipment has become more complicated and delicate. The company holds two drills, a business meeting and one clean up per month. They often participate in simulated disaster exercises with other companies. Thus members must be willing to devote a significant portion of their time to the Corps. The Corps must be able to respond twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. This situation has often reached a crisis in the past and is true today. As recently as 1993 the Corps had twenty-five members. In 1994 it had fallen to 18, in April of 1996 it will stand at 13. Despite it proud and unpaid service to the community during the past 25 years, Mahwah’s Company #4 Volunteer Ambulance Corps cannot continue with only thirteen members. Of the 416 calls to which the Corps responded in 1995, 63% took place during the day. At present only three members are available during the day. One of them, Janice McClanahan, often takes the ambulance with her to her work at the Township Department of Public Works, so that she can try to respond to calls when they come in. Can someone come forward to help?
Service in the Ambulance Corps brings the rewards of the satisfaction of helping fellow human beings in time of need. There is no financial reward and very few people even say thank you, but the members derive the satisfaction of belonging to a close-knit family of skilled care givers. They matter to Mahwah.