On a rare quiet morning in the cramped quarters that serve as the base for Newtown’s busy Volunteer Ambulance Corps, newly elected Chief Mike Collins was much more interested in talking about his 50-plus active and dedicated colleagues than himself.
And if he has his wish, in the coming year or so, he will have plenty more new colleagues to talk about.
One of the primary goals of the volunteer company’s new leader is to more than double the number of volunteers serving the community and its almost 60 square miles encompassing homes, businesses, forests, farms, and the thousands of commuters who pass through Newtown 365 days a year its roadways and adjacent interstate.
“You couldn’t find or ask for a more diverse group of people as we have here,” Mr Collins said. “And as you can imagine, even if one or two of them have a difference of opinion about something once in awhile, we all work as a cohesive unit when we are responding to a call for help.”
Mr Collins, who previously served on the corps’ leadership panel as a member at large for five years, took office December 1 along with Assistant Chief Sharon McCarthy, Secretary Ken Lehrman, and the two newest members at large, Josh Barrows and James Wolf.
Members at large serve as liaisons between corps members and the executive board.
He brings to the post experience including his EMT training — working 24-hour shifts in the Emergency Room at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx — and his service on the executive board of California’s Local 104, where he helped administer business on behalf of its 8,000 members.
The new ambulance chief was born in London, and moved with his family to Washington Heights, N.Y., in 1959. He attended Manhattan Prep, and completed a couple of certificate courses at NYU before settling on a career working doing metal fabrication on high-rise buildings in New York and later in the San Francisco Bay area where he became reacquainted with a high school friend who eventually became his wife, Maureen.
Mr Collins said that he never thought much about emergency services until he took a minor tumble off a construction site roof and had to come under the care of some New York responders.
“Let’s just say that I didn’t think much of the treatment I got from those responders, so I decided to become an EMT,” he said. He subsequently served as an emergency medical technician in Yonkers, N.Y., before taking a job on the West Coast and “retiring” from the field for nearly a quarter century.
When he and his wife were considering a move back East, like many couples they began researching communities and fell for Newtown with its rural charm, suburban amenities, and proximity to metro New York and Boston.
“We also had a horse at the time so it was a good fit — and I learned the community had a pretty good volunteer ambulance company, too,” Mr Collins recalled. His first day visiting Newtown he walked into the ambulance company’s Main Street headquarters.
“There was actually an EMT class going on when I walked in, so I joined up,” he said. And over a period of several weeks the couple commuted in from neighboring New York.
“While Maureen went looking for a new home, I finished the EMT class,” he said. “We ended up settling on Great Ring Road and I started on the ambulance almost immediately.”
Lots Of Duties
Hoping to attract many more new members in the coming year as the corps readies to occupy its new headquarters at Fairfield Hills, Mr Collins believes its all about helping the public understand that there are a lot of things to be done for the corps besides handling patients in crisis.
“Volunteers don’t necessarily have to ever go out on a medical call,” he said. “We need people to drive our paramedic truck, we need folks to help us maintain equipment, supplies, our vehicles, and to handle various administrative or organizational chores that are completely separate from any exposure to emergency situations.”
The new chief has a simple philosophy, “recruit, retain and reward.”
“Right now we have about 58 active members covering the entire town 365 days a year, 24-hours-a-day. That’s a huge demand to put on just 58 people,” he said.
Newtown Ambulance volunteer responders work with on-site paramedics who are employed through Danbury Ambulance Service, and respond to calls in their own company “fly car,” an SUV equipped with the necessary equipment and tools to handle virtually any medical challenge.
While the volunteers are responding to about 200 calls a month on average, Mr Collins said Newtown is “pretty fortunate that we have enough dedicated members so that we can get a crew to all first and second calls, and most of our third [calls].”
On the rare occasion that Newtown volunteers cannot stretch to cover three simultaneous calls, crews from neighboring communities answer the calls for mutual aid, with additional backup from paid Danbury Ambulance responders.
“Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Service is the only advanced life support service in town,” he explained. “We are independent and not affiliated with any of the five town fire companies, although many members of those companies are trained in first aid, are EMTs themselves, and answer many calls alongside our volunteers.”
Mr Collins took the opportunity to not only appeal to Newtown residents for possible volunteer service, but to remind everyone about helping responders expedite their arrival to calls.
“Our members have green flashing courtesy lights,” he said. “When they are on a call those lights will be activated and we ask that people pull over and permit our responders to pass. It helps get medical assistance to those in distress more quickly.”
‘File of Life’
Mr Collins advises all Newtown residents to request and keep a “file of life,” which is available free from the corps.
“It lists all current medications, medical conditions, history and allergies,” Mr Collins said. “Be sure to fill it out in pencil, and update it whenever there is a change in status.”
The new ambulance chief also understands that on most medical calls, loved ones and bystanders are scared or upset. But he urges them to try and stay as calm as possible and let the well-trained and experienced medical responders do their work.
Surprisingly, he also asked that victims themselves not interfere with medical treatment by engaging immediate bystanders, or making cellphone calls while they are being treated.
“You wouldn’t believe how many times we are treating someone who is injured, and they hold up their hand and ask us to wait while they take or make a cell call,” he said shaking his head.
In the coming months, Mr Collins plans to be working with the five Newtown fire companies, bringing their volunteers up to speed on the latest responder protocols required of his corps and Danbury Hospital, the town’s designated trauma center and emergency room.
He also put a special call out to any young people who are considering a career in the nursing, medical, or related health care professions.
“Our corps is a great place to learn the basics of medical care,” Mr Collins said. “We hear time after time that our members are much more advanced than their classroom peers because they have trained and worked with our company. It really pushes you ahead of other students without that experience.”
Closing out the interview, Mr Collins also reminded residents that the corps is in the process of constructing its new headquarters, and any donations to its building fund are greatly appreciated.
To learn more about the NVAC, visit the headquarters at 77 Main Street, call 203-270-4380 or visit online at newtown-ambulance.org.