For years, the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad (VTRS) has been operating professionally, efficiently, and just under the radar. Then the events of a tragic April morning thrust the squad into the spotlight.
Suddenly, images of squad members at work were all over the media--and their phones were ringing off the hook. Matthew Green and Matthew Lewis, VTRS president and vice president at the time, respectively, took the bulk of the media calls and fielded questions from news outlets from around the world.
"They performed admirably in the face of terrible circumstances that day," says Daniel High (sociology '97), president of the VTRS Life Member and Alumni Association (LMAA). High is not alone in praising the actions of this all-student, all-volunteer squad, which is the oldest collegiate rescue squad of its kind in the country. Commendations have come from a number of sources, including the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors and Alumni Association and the governor's review panel. The squad also received the Stars of Life Award from the American Ambulance Association.
Then there were the gifts and cards from well-wishers across the country: baskets of snack foods, chocolate, assorted flower arrangements, cans of soup, and even a box of quilts from a group in Littleton, Colo. E-mails of thanks and encouragement poured in from around the world, overwhelming the squad's ability to reply to each one, but every message was read and appreciated.
Not your average student group
It is a tight-knit community. Ask any of the current members or alumni--you major in rescue squad and minor in whatever it is you are studying. "All of the members have several shifts that they pull a week. But people spend far more time here than that," says Joanna Romanyshyn, current VTRS vice president and public information officer. "You come here to hang out between classes. It is kind of a second home for some."
"It is a lot like a fraternity house,” comments crew member Audrey Martin. "Only a nerdy one, where people are always talking about medical stuff."
Located in an old campus mail room near the power plant smokestack, the squad station does have that frat house feel with its worn sofas and a heavily used kitchen, but there are the fire and rescue magazines strewn about and conversations about what is being covered in "I class," a shorthand for the emergency medical technician intermediate training program that a number of the squad members are enrolled in at night outside their college major.
"It is a small station. There aren't too many places to hide," says High, who is now a Baltimore City firefighter. "That forms a tight bond."
The atmosphere is lighthearted and friendly, but the squad members are serious about the work. At the start of the semester, members could be found unloading supplies and preparing for the first football game. Working football games and such large-scale events as Commencement is mandatory for all members. Alumni squad members, many of whom have gone on to careers in fire-fighting and rescue or medicine, frequently come to town to help out and work the games.
Maintaining the highest standards
The squad trains throughout the year and continuously updates its emergency plans. All of the VTRS probates--prospective members in training--are required to take part in a mass casualty incident drill similar to the plan they activated on April 16.
All of the 38 active members worked that day, says current VTRS President James Downing. Those members who weren't on duty showed up on scene as soon as they heard the news. "It went like clockwork," Downing says simply.
Part of what helped operations run so smoothly was that the squad was working side-by-side with agencies such as the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad (BVRS), groups that regularly assist them with what they call "interagency training drills," so long-standing relationships were already in place. "They helped us a lot that day," comments Downing.
Over the years, the BVRS has been instrumental in helping members get specific kinds of training with equipment and in situations they wouldn't ordinarily encounter on campus. "They have a crash truck, which we don't have," notes Romanyshyn. Recently, in a training exercise with BVRS, the extrication teams from both squads worked together on a high-speed vehicle impact scenario while using Blacksburg's hydraulic rescue tools.
While squad members aren't quick to brag about themselves, they will boast about the squad's response time, which is between two and three minutes--nearly unheard of in the emergency medical service community. The area they cover, the Blacksburg campus, encompasses 2,600 acres and 19 miles of roadway.
According to VTRS Captain Matt Johnson, VTRS maintains two advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, an ALS-equipped first-response vehicle, a John Deere Gator capable of transporting patients from areas unreachable with an ambulance, a bicycle response team, and a mass-casualty response unit capable of treating up to 30 patients.
Into the future
With the squad's increased visibility, it isn't surprising that applications are up. The squad tries to take on 12 probates a year, and it is a lengthy process to become an active member.
Downing acknowledges that it is like a Greek organization in some ways. "How I explain it [to prospective members] is that while all fraternities have a service component, for us the service component comes first," he says. "The friendships come as a result of that work. [Our organization] appeals to people who want to help out in the community and gain valuable experience while doing it."
Romanyshyn agrees. "You fall in love with the work."
Supported in part by the university and by donations, they are definitely seeing more resources coming their way. This summer, Carilion Health System, one of the top medical providers in the region, made a large donation to establish a VTRS endowment.
And changes are on the horizon with regard to their quarters--one of the issues included in the university's report on April 16 was a recommendation that police and rescue operations have their own building on campus. While university administrators and the board of visitors have moved swiftly to begin allocating funds and initiating the process, a location has not yet been announced.
Squad members are excited despite the fact that, technically, they won't be around to enjoy the new space. "We've always had plans to expand, and we've been hoping for eons for more space and a new location. This surpasses any of our expectations," says Romanyshyn, who will graduate in May. Then she smiles. "But you know, I will miss this old place."