Rescue Squad: The Origin

Program Information

Series: A Moment in Time
Duration: 00:04:53
Year Produced: 2009
Description:

Despite the growing sophistication of modern medical practice and technology in the early 20th century, delivery of care still lagged. Providing that link--usually on a volunteer basis--was the rescue squad.

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Transcript

Lead: Despite the growing sophistication of modern medical practice and technology in the early 20th century, delivery of care still lagged. Providing that link--usually on a volunteer basis--was the rescue squad.

Intro: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: In late spring 1909, nine-year-old Julian Wise stood on the bank of the Roanoke River in southwest Virginia and watched two men drown when their canoe collapsed. The incident stuck in his mind and, looking back, he resolved that he would never again watch a man die when he could be saved.

In 1928 he helped found the Roanoke Life-Saving and First Aid Crew. His idea was unique in that rescue, first aid, and life-saving were combined into a single volunteer organization. The group mostly sat on their hands for several years, until 1931 when they successfully revived a drowning victim after reaching the scene in only 11 minutes. Soon interest began to grow, with Wise traveling to cities in the central South, helping them to establish clubs of their own. His work was featured in a Reader's Digest article and, by 1959, 800 squads were in operation around the world.

The volunteer spirit has been a part of community life for centuries. In medieval Florence, Italy a group of civilian volunteers, the Misericordia di Firenze, was founded in 1240 to transport the sick and dead of the city. Jean Henri Dunant, after witnessing the carnage at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, started a group to offer civilian aid to wounded soldiers. This group later became the International Red Cross.

As often is the case, volunteer initiative led to a change in public policy. Increasingly, first through federal funding and encouragement under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, state and local jurisdictions began to establish EMS (emergency medical service) capabilities. The movement provided numerous innovations in equipment and procedure: huge hydraulic metal cutters, "The Jaws of Life," assist in removal of drivers from the wrecks of crashed cars; telecommunications and battery powered computer controlled defibrillators in rescue vehicles dramatically reduce the time cardiac victims await attention; and helicopter services offered by hospitals, EMS departments, and private firms speed emergency patients into critical care.

The volunteer rescue squad concept has come under pressure in recent decades. Increased tax support for county and city EMS services has reduced the demand for volunteer services, the need for more expensive equipment and training places a burden on charitably funded groups, and the number of volunteers has fallen because many trained EMTs choose to serve full-time. Yet the need for the part-time volunteer rescue squad will probably not completely disappear, and the familiar vans with the Blue Star of Life emblazoned on their side will still bring desperately needed services to the neighborhoods and countryside of America.

Research by Eric Houdek, at the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.