Thirty-five years of saving lives Volunteer First Aid Squad celebrates anniversary in grand style
by Jim Hague Reporter staff writer
May 21, 2004 | 976 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It started with very humble origins in 1969 with one used ambulance donated from Fair Lawn. "That ambulance used to break down a lot," said Jeff Welz, who has served as a member of the Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad since its second year and has been the organization's president since 1980. "I remember we rescued someone and the ambulance broke down three blocks away from the [Palisades General] hospital, so we had to get out and push the stretcher for three blocks."

Now, 35 years later, the Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad is still going strong, serving the community and saving lives, only now with better equipment and talented personnel.

"We were the first volunteer squad in Hudson County," Welz said. "We've responded to over 55,000 calls in 35 years. During that time, we've trained 450 people to become EMTs [Emergency Medical Technicians]. Many have gone on to professional careers as paramedics and nurses and we've even had four who became doctors. The squad has been an integral part of the community for a very long time."

Last Saturday night, the squad celebrated its 35th anniversary with a grand gala at the Landmark in East Rutherford. More than 200 people were in attendance, some of whom were long-time members who came back to reminisce.

It was also a chance for several Hudson County dignitaries to pay tribute to the squad. Rep. Robert Menendez was on hand to present the squad with a Congressional Proclamation. There was a joint State Assembly/State Senate proclamation that was presented by State Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, representing Sen. Bernard Kenny and State Assemblyman Brian Stack.

Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise could not attend, but he did present a citation and gave a donation to help the squad. Sal Vega, the chairman of the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders, presented the honors in place of DeGise.

Mayor Richard Turner and the Weehawken Township Council were also on hand to present a township proclamation and award as well.

"We celebrated 35 years of service to the community," Turner said. "Many volunteer ambulance services have folded over the years, but we have a dedicated group to keep ours going strong. We have some of the best trained people to give the best service at very little cost. We would not be able to provide this kind of service without their dedication."

Turner said that he was pleased that former mayor Stanley Iacono, who helped form the squad, was on hand, as well as some other original members.

"Not only is the squad a life-saving benefit for the town, but it's become a career path for many," Turner said. "It's always our pleasure to thank them and show our appreciation for everything they do. They help to make Weehawken the solid community that it is."

Two get awards

Welz said that there were two awards presented to members that night.

Robert Quigley, the son of State Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, was presented with a charter life membership award for 20 years of service. Matthew Kilroy received the Lt. Robert Cirri Memorial Award, given to the member who responds to the most calls in a calendar year. The award was named after the late Cirri, a former member of the squad who was killed in the World Trade Center tragedy while working for the Port Authority police.

Welz said that the organization still struggles to find new members who are willing to give up their time and become EMTs.

"It was a struggle back when we had only 13 members in 1970 and it's still a struggle today," Welz said. "We're always thinking of innovative programs in order to attract more volunteers."

The squad will soon get a new state-of-the-art ambulance from the federal Department of Homeland Security, by way of a $75,000 grant that the township received for its participation in 9/11 rescue activities.

"The new ambulance should be here within 60 days and I know we're all pleased about that," Welz said.

Welz said that the squad paid tribute to the three members who died during the last five years since there was an anniversary celebration, namely Msgr. Thomas Heck of St. Augustine Church in Union City, Michael Geerlof and Michael Vernidus.

"It's a night to honor all the volunteers who take the time and make the squad that much better," Welz said. Tom Cheplic, the squad's vice president, agreed.

"It was an outstanding night," Cheplic said. "We all had a great time. It was phenomenal to have the dignitaries take the time out of their busy schedules and spend time with us. It was a Who's Who of Hudson County dignitaries and it was nice to be recognized by such influential people."
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