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Volunteer Strong: Bergenfield VAC

How important is volunteering to EMS? In some parts of the U.S., you don’t have one without the other. Even in the presence of paid providers, volunteers often augment prehospital care for their communities.

Many of us began our careers by donating time to local rescue squads. The lessons we learned at volunteer organizations aided our development while reinforcing the value of helping others. EMS World is proud to publicize those institutions for being volunteer strong. This month we feature New Jersey’s Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

Bergenfield VAC Summary

  • Link to agency website
  • Founded: 1941
  • Area served: Borough of Bergenfield (2.9 square miles)
  • Population served: 28,000
  • Annual call volume: 2,300
  • Members: 60 EMTs

Beyond the Call

There are few topics as polarizing within our industry as volunteering. At one extreme is the notion that volunteer EMS is primarily recreational, with less-rigorous prerequisites than paid systems have for gaining and maintaining certification. At the other end are assumptions that volunteers are incompetent and unable to respond reliably. Neither belief represents reality in much of the nation.

A goal of every agency you’ll read about in this series is to satisfy professional criteria while engaging in mutually beneficial community outreach—to find the sweet spot between EMS as a job and EMS as a calling.

Consider the Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps of New Jersey. Each of its 60 members, all unpaid EMTs, ride 24–72 hours a month. Such administrative flexibility assures in-house crews 24/7 while accommodating responders’ families and careers. “It’s not that volunteers have more time than other people,” says Bergenfield Capt. Ryan Shell, who has three small children and commutes daily from the Garden State to New York City. “It’s that we choose to allocate some of our time to the community.”

Shell, Bergenfield’s chief of operations, characterizes that commitment as a job without a paycheck. “I try to lay it out that way for new members,” the 20-year EMS veteran says. “We take very seriously our responsibility to meet or exceed all industry standards.

“When someone in Bergenfield needs us, we make sure they get prompt service from caring and competent people. Just knowing we’re helping others can be very rewarding.”

Shell points to a recent pediatric call as an example of his agency’s dedication to borough residents: “The case involved severe trauma to a child. We were on scene within 30 seconds and transported to the trauma center within four minutes.

“Unfortunately the patient didn’t make it. Our crew was with the child until the end and helped console the family when they got there. That gave our members some closure too.”

BVAC has been responding to emergencies since 1941, when it was known as the Bergenfield Firemen’s Ambulance Corps. By 1984 EMS call volume had increased enough to justify a stand-alone agency. “We continue to have a great relationship with fire,” says Shell, who adds that his organization is dispatched by the local police department and averages a sub-five-minute response.

Although Bergenfield counts an MD, a PA, nurses, and paramedics among its members, the agency, like other volunteer squads in New Jersey, is BLS-only. Dispatchers can request hospital-based paramedics, but crews won’t wait on scene for them. “It wouldn’t make sense; we’re close to three hospitals,” says Shell. In the absence of ALS, Bergenfield has adopted every one of New Jersey’s optional BLS interventions, including nebulized albuterol, naloxone, and CPAP. “Most of that training is provided by local paramedics,” adds the 38-year-old IT professional.

High Esteem

How does BVAC, just north of Fort Lee on the Jersey side of the Hudson River, ensure a solid membership base year after year? “Through public relations,” according to Shell. “You have to be visible to the community in a positive way. We do lots of standbys and rely on word of mouth.”

New members are scrupulously vetted, trained, and observed. “We want people who are responsible and reliable; people who care about their neighbors,” says Shell, who disputes the notion that volunteerism is dying out. “It’s alive and well in Bergenfield,” he says.

“Here, volunteers are held in high esteem. I like to think that’s partly due to our agency’s culture. We embrace change whenever it helps us keep pace with standards of care.”

For Shell and Bergenfield, EMS is a serious business—even without paychecks. “The public deserves our best,” he says. “You won’t ever hear us use the excuse, ‘We’re only volunteers.’”

Mike Rubin is a paramedic in Nashville and a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. Contact him at mgr22@prodigy.net.

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