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Fifty years providing an essential service

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If there is one constant throughout history, it’s that volunteer ambulance service personnel provide an essential service. While the techniques and the equipment has changed over the past 50 years, the dedication of the volunteers and the personal benefits they receive remain consistent. Those benefits are magnified by the benefits to the community and, especially, to those in need of emergency medical assistance.

If it weren’t for these volunteers, we’d all be a little less fortunate. We’d all be waiting a little bit longer for regional emergency medical services to arrive at our hour of need.

In fact, it was the wait time for an ambulance to arrive, plus changing regulations pertaining to ambulances, that prompted Narrowsburg residents to establish the service in 1969.

“We recognized that we were waiting on an ambulance from up the river and from across the river and so we started our own,” said pastor Donald Beck, one of the early members of the ambulance service.

Well before that, people in need of going to the hospital were often brought to the train, loaded into the caboose and taken to the “sanitarium” in Port Jervis. They were brought to the train in what was known as a combination car, staffed by the Rasmussen Funeral home.

According to Ron Rasmussen, it was standard operating duties that the funeral home would have a combination car, a vehicle that served the funeral home and doubled as a way to get sick people to waiting trains. That all changed, he said, in 1969, when the state implemented regulations that ambulances needed to have certain equipment and personnel with training.

With those new regulations in mind, founding member Beth Peck remembered that then Tusten Supervisor Dick Behling and insurance agent Fred Tegeler, as well as many community members, worked vigorously to get the service organized. A panel truck with windows was pressed into service and the funeral home donated stretchers they no longer needed. The ambulance was housed in a garage in the town hall, where the town offices are now.

Rasmussen said the funeral home continued to dispatch the volunteers for some time. People on call were instructed to stay by their phone and be available at a moment’s notice.

That much has not changed through the decades. From the volunteer’s perspective, being part of the crew is akin to being part of an extended family.

“I have my ski patrol family, my fire department family, my ambulance family and my family,” former ambulance president Craig Burkle said. “I learned about giving back to my community from my father. When you have a business in town, it’s your responsibility to give back.”

Long-time member Francis Cape said he sees his service as a duty to this town.
“This is a small community and we rely and depend on each other,” Cape said. “Not everyone can do it, but for me it’s something that I can do. It gets me out of my little bubble. I get to meet people I wouldn’t normally meet. You go into people’s homes and see other people’s lives.”

Former member Eileen Falk echoed that sentiment. “It really is a privilege to do this work. It’s terribly needed. Knowing that you are helping somebody is the best experience you can have.”

It’s not easy, said former Tusten EMT Ursula Agnello.

“Often you know the person; it’s like they are your family,” she said. “But you have a job to do, and you do it the best that you can.”

According to Cape, many of the calls are medical—a patient who is under a doctor’s care—and medications are being adjusted. “You get to know them, and they get to know the drill,” he said. “It’s pretty straightforward most of the time.”

Due to the dwindling number of people who work in town, the service now has two paid EMTs who supplement coverage, often during day shifts. Still, volunteers who want to work as EMTs or as drivers are needed. Several years ago, the service instituted a paid-per-call program. Volunteers can receive a modest stipend for each call they take. For most, it’s not a matter of money.

“It filled a hole in my life,” Anna Campfield said of her decade-plus years with the service. “The ambulance is urgently needed and we should be appreciative that they are here.”

Fifty years ago, community members created something out of nothing. They created a strong and resilient force in our community. Then, everyone participated and it’s up to us to continue to do so.

The Tusten Volunteer Ambulance Service is under the direction of EMT Jason Welton. It is certified in Pennsylvania and New York and welcomes new members from both states. An open house will be held on Saturday, September 21 at the ambulance building at 6509 Rte. 97 from 12 noon to 4 p.m. Stop by and find out more.

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