July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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Active, Prepared First Responders: The Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps

When one calls 911, who are the people who answer that call? Spending a day with an on-call emergency response team at Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps (BVAC) showed there is a lot to learn—and a lot to be proud of—about the vibrant and growing nonprofit first response organization that the town considers a valued partner.

Serving Bergnfield’s 27,000 residents, BVAC’s 53 volunteer emergency medical technicians (EMTs) answer an average of 2,500 calls to 911 a year. They are on call day and night, in all weather conditions and during all weekends and holidays. They are equally divided between men and women and include members of all faiths.

Most issues BVAC responds to involve car crashes, difficulty breathing, slips and falls, cardiac events, or medical issues causing weakness. “Any time the police encounter a person with any type of injury, they call us,” said BVAC Chief Ryan Shell. He has been an EMT for the past 20 years, the head of BVAC for the last eight, and for the last two years has also served as Bergenfield’s emergency management officer (OEM), a role that added many public health responsibilities during the pandemic. This allowed Shell to be up on the latest safety protocols, and he even had a lot of PPE (personal protective equipment) stored, allowing the borough to be more prepared than other typical volunteer first responders. “Some volunteer ambulance corps shut down during COVID, but ours ended up becoming more active,” he said.

BVAC’s average response time is under three minutes, but during the Jewish holidays and Shabbat, with many Jewish BVAC members at home, response time shrinks even more. With certain calls, response time has been recorded at 80 seconds. This is partially why BVAC has developed an improved direct response plan based on a major gift, organized by Bergenfield’s Dr. Avi Retter, and announced a few weeks ago in The Jewish Link. That gift provided every BVAC member with a complete set of equipment including a first aid bag, a two-way radio for their personal vehicle, oxygen, an AED (automated external defibrillator) and emergency medications such as EpiPen, Narcan and Albuterol.

“Before this effort, BVAC only had enough equipment for a small handful of our members to have the right equipment to respond directly to emergencies. Now, everyone can,” Shell said.

What is most impressive about BVAC is that it is a private, not-for-profit organization, even though they work seamlessly with Bergenfield’s police and fire departments, as well as residents, every day. They receive a significant annual donation from the town to offset costs and maintain their equipment, but rely on donations to fund most of their operations.

BVAC has four ambulances and a “fly vehicle” for quick response. Also, since 2019, BVAC has hosted one of two county volunteer EMS support trucks. The support truck was equipped by Bergen County’s Office of Emergency Management with active shooter rescue task force equipment, including bleeding control kits with tourniquets and Israeli bandages, bulletproof vests, ballistic helmets, triage tents and more.

“Bergen County OEM chose BVAC to host the equipment because it was one of only two volunteer EMS squads in the county that could guarantee that it would be available to respond to an active shooter incident anywhere in the county, 24/7,” said Shell.

BVAC volunteers are specially trained in active shooter response and many other kinds of emergencies as well, though thankfully they have never had to use many of these skills. In large fires that require
multiple firefighters to enter the home or business to fight a blaze, a rehabilitation tent is set up to evaluate victims and firefighters on-scene. Police come with BVAC in response to every call to ensure public safety.

BVAC is trained as a rescue task force in situations that may require it such as, God forbid, active shooter events. “Police will go right in. They will clear the room closest to them, and will bring in emergency medical services closest to that room. That will be a place where they can bring victims immediately, as an auxiliary treatment room,” Shell said.

The members explained that after the tragic school shooting at Columbine, police and emergency medical services changed policies because they found that a larger perimeter set up to ensure public safety actually sigificantly decreased emergency response times, and made it harder or impossible for injured persons to get help in a timely way. A victim’s chances of survival in such situations improves in direct correlation to the speed at which emergency responders arrive.

“Our equipment has to be brought to that scene. Our crews have to be on duty 24 hours a day. Our rescue task force is one of two [volunteer corps] that cover the 72 towns in Bergen County. We will get it to the scene wherever it is,” explained Shell. Though it is scary to think about, BVAC is also trained to provide active shooter response to classrooms. “All classrooms should be prepared already, with tourniquets, crayons, paper and even cat litter in case children have to go to the bathroom and can’t leave the room.”

BVAC can get a person to a local hospital within 15 minutes, which is important because if someone is having a heart attack or a stroke, they need to have treatment begun as quickly as possible. Patients are mostly taken to Englewood Hospital, Hackensack or Holy Name, but they can also be taken to hospitals further away if there is a need.

Ahmos Silvera, a Bergenfield native who now lives in Manhattan as he completes college, is BVAC’s deputy chief. He was on call the day I visited and shared with me that earlier in the morning he had responded to an incident in which a person was not breathing. He determined that the person had passed away and made the appropriate calls to address the situation.

Shell and Silvera explained that BVAC is seeking new members who want to join their ranks, and they have many members of all ages. EMT training, organized through the American Red Cross, is fully paid for by BVAC, and the course is 250 hours. It takes about three months to complete. The members explained that there are exams, and unfortunately some people do flunk out. “But generally it’s very satisfying to be up on the latest life-saving strategies. We renew every two or three years. We offer some free classes and some required classes,” said Silvera. Stipends are paid to the volunteers to cover their costs, based on the number of calls to which they respond and their number of hours on call.

The traditional time commitment for full members is 72 hours a month, which usually encompasses one 12-hour shift during the week and one 24-hour shift on the weekend. There are also other, less time-bound options for people who are interested.

Shell added that BVAC is a healthy environment for older teens, girls or boys who might be interested in training as EMTs. “It is a nice, supportive environment. We even had a Maariv minyan here after a meeting recently,” he said. BVAC members also serve the community in other work roles, as teachers, real estate agents, accountants and IT professionals.

But it isn’t just EMTs and BVAC who can work to ensure safety in Bergenfield, the BVAC team added. There are steps people can take to improve their safety in all situations. These include keeping lists of medications on everyone’s fridge along with any emergency numbers, and making sure family members know of any particular wishes for emergency care, such as whether a family member has a DNR (do not resuscitate) order.

It is also important to remember to wear reflective clothing or belts when walking at night, use crosswalks, make sure house numbers or addresses are lit and visible to first responders day and night, and make sure children in the house know how to call 911.

If calling 911, if it is possible to send someone outside to flag down the BVAC, please do so. Also, take American Heart Association classes, like CPR training, whenever they are available. Bystanders and teachers can learn how to “stop the bleed” and respond to multiple types of emergencies, thus saving lives as first responders themselves.

To learn more about volunteering for BVAC, or to donate, visit https://www.bergenfieldambulance.org/.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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