For a small town, Weehawken calls 911 a whole lot. The township’s Volunteer First Aid Squad (WVFAS), headquartered on Highwood Avenue, answered about 2,700 calls in 2012, according to its captain, Giovanni Ahmad. In addition to responding to ambulance requests, the squad also stands at the ready for large events, including Fourth of July fireworks celebrations and Hoboken’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities, as well as unforeseen emergencies, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the crash landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River.
“I’d like to say we’ve seen it all,” said the squad’s vice president, Thomas Cheplic, “but I won’t, because you never really want to see it all.”
Still, if “all” ever actually happens, these volunteers are the ones Weehawken residents want responding, which is why they’re currently in the process of their annual fund drive.
“I’d like to say we’ve seen it all, but I won’t, because you never really want to see it all.” – WVFAS Vice President Thomas Cheplic
The squad operates three ambulances, which Cheplic are “meticulously, if not fanatically, looked after.” The squad is looking to replace the oldest of the three, a 2000 model.
“That might not seem like that long, but the shelf life of an ambulance is around 5 to 7 years,” he said. “We keep them in pretty good shape, but we’re looking to get a new one next year.”
Oldest squad in Hudson County
The squad, which was founded in 1969 in the basement of Weehawken’s municipal building, was the first of its kind in Hudson County. The squad moved to its current location in 1988, after the building, an old auto body shop, was refurbished in a joint effort by the township, NY Waterway, and the Hartz Mountain Corporation.
Since then, it has served the township and the greater North Hudson County community in nearly every first aid capacity. Its volunteers are trained in oxygen therapy, emergency child delivery, and treatment for drowning, choking, broken bones, severe blood trauma, and burns.
“Nearly every major injury can be broken down into a basic set of treatments,” said Ahmad. “We have to be able to identify quickly what treatments are necessary in any given case.”
Sometimes, the cases are strange, and to the naked eye, there is no prescribed plan of attack. For instance, the time a few years ago a bus on the Lincoln Tunnel helix careened over the protective wall and was teetering off the bridge. Or the time a light rail car crashed into a N.J. Transit bus on Harbor Boulevard. Still, Ahmad said, no matter the situation, there’s always a plan.
“We have this thing called the Incident Command System (IRS),” he said. “It’s basically a chain of command and action that can be adapted to any situation.”
Last weekend, the squad held its celebrated its annual installation of squad officers and awards ceremony. Now in its 44th year of service to the township, this year’s oath of office was administered by invited guest Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff.
Each year, the squad celebrates members that have reached milestones in the number of emergencies they responded to. This year, several responders reached milestones.
Kevin Davila, Frances Melendez and Gino Montero were honored for 100 career calls, Jessica Arebalo, Arleen Palma, Cristian Preda, and Steven Treut were honored for 250 career calls. Brian Mera was honored for 1,000 calls, Al Berg for 1,250, Cheplic for 2,750 calls, and Wayne Lavoie for his unprecedented 4,500 career calls.
Since 2001, the squad has given a special award to the responder who answered the most calls in the calendar year. The Lt. Robert D. Cirri Memorial Award, named after a Port Authority Police Officer and Weehawken squad member who died on Sept. 11, went to longtime squad member Yves Saad this year. Saad has won the award five times, the first of any responder in the squad’s history to do so.
One big family
Cheplic explained that Weehawken’s first aid squad, unlike its counterparts around Hudson County, doesn’t see a lot of turnover, which he said was surprising.
“We’re really kind of an anomaly in the world of EMT squads,” said Cheplic. “On top of the fact that this can be a very stressful job, we do it for free, so it’s amazing that people stick around so long.”
The squad gives a special lifetime membership award to squad members who have served for 10 years. Eleven of the award’s recipients are still enrolled in active service.
“When we realized some of those guys were approaching 20 years, we realized we probably needed a new award,” Cheplic said.
Of the six squad members to have ever served 20 years, four are still on active duty, including the squad’s president, Weehawken Director of Public Safety Jeff Welz.
“The township has been a huge supporter of ours. Without Mayor [Richard] Turner and the council, we probably wouldn’t have lasted so long,” said Cheplic.
If you’d like to make a donation to the squad, please mail a check made out to the Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad to P.O. Box 4917, Weehawken, NJ, 07086.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org