In Orthodox synagogues throughout Teaneck and Bergenfield, July 1 will be observed as “TVAC/BVAC Shabbos,” raising awareness of the work of a selfless group who are there every day of the week to help those in need of medical assistance.
The synagogues will present information about the lifesaving services provided by the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps — TVAC — and the Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps — BVAC.
These two squads assist with medical emergencies 24/7, with a medically trained and equipped first responder arriving on scene in under two minutes. How do they do this? The highly trained emergency medical technicians are an extraordinary force of volunteers from the community — friends and neighbors who give their time, skills, and knowledge to help people in need. When medical emergencies strike, quick response time is of the essence and may mean the difference between life and death, so a speedy response from the EMTs is paramount for saving lives and ensuring the best outcome possible.
“The goal of this weekend is to raise awareness and support of our work, both in recruiting volunteers, fundraising, and general community support,” the two corps’ medical director, Dr. Eliyahu Cooper, said. The TVAC and BVAC respond to more than 7,000 calls every year, and their average response time is significantly faster than the nationally recommended average response time.
The organizations are well-equipped — TVAC has five ambulances and BVAC has four — so when there are simultaneous or overlapping calls or major emergencies, the groups have the ability to cover multiple sites. They also have large numbers of highly trained volunteers. According to Ryan Shell, captain of BVAC, his squad has 55 members, including 34 men and 21 women. TVAC has about 150 volunteers — about 90 of them are on active duty each month. About 40 percent of those volunteers are women, Dr. Cooper reported. Many volunteers are Orthodox Jews who work side by side with fellow EMTs from a cross-section of the community. The squads are diverse with regard to religion and race as well as gender. The two corps serve everyone, of all backgrounds, in Teaneck and Bergenfield.
In addition to their own extensive capabilities, TVAC and BVAC work together cooperatively in what they call a mutual-aid agreement, so that if either town has more emergency calls than its group can handle at one time, the other town’s ambulance corps will respond.
“It’s a place where people from all different segments of the community get together for a common goal,” Dr. Cooper, a 15 year TVAC veteran and former TVAC president, said. Dr. Cooper, an anesthesiologist and a married father of four, lives in Bergenfield. He grew up in Teaneck and joined TVAC when he was a teen. “It showcases how all the different elements of the community work together,” he said.
Mr. Shell, who joined BVAC when he moved to Bergenfield 10 years ago, has been an EMT since he was 16. Shell lives in Bergenfield with his wife and three children and works in information technology. “I do a few hundred calls per year,” he said. He reflected on the challenging situations he has encountered in his service. “It’s hard, especially when you start young, when you start at 16,” he continued. “You see everything. You see people at the most difficult and most vulnerable times in their lives. I saw a teacher of mine as a patient.
“No matter who you are, everybody eventually winds up on a stretcher,” Mr. Shell continued. “In the IT world, what’s my contribution to society? It’s not that fulfilling. BVAC is fulfilling. I definitely would not be a complete person without it.”
Sam Levi, 71, has been serving TVAC for 23 years. He is its acting treasurer, managing its annual budget of about $300,000. He also rides in the ambulance on Tuesday nights from 7 to 11 p.m. “It’s a voice telling you that this is the thing you should be doing,” he said. “It has to come from inside the person. You get a lot of inner satisfaction from doing something that’s a service to people.
“I get a lot of personal satisfaction from having done it.”
Rabbi Daniel Senter, the president of TVAC, lives and works in Teaneck. As chief operations officer of the Kof K kosher certification agency, his time is at a premium. But his volunteer work is a passion and a top priority for him. Rabbi Senter joined TVAC about 12 years ago. “I always wanted to be an EMT,” he said. “My daughter Dina was anxious to start riding, and I said I’ll do it with her. She’s a nurse practitioner now.
“One of the successes of TVAC is that we’ve had many, many members who joined as younger kids interested in medical fields,” Rabbi Senter added. And many members and former members have gone on to become doctors, nurses, and physician assistants, working in many medical fields. “It’s a good springboard for people who are interested in medical careers,” he said.
Dr. Cooper noted that “while we have a lot of people who have gone on to advanced medical careers, we also have people who are in other professions.” Members work in business and law; they are teachers, contractors, and bus drivers, to name a few. “Many of my friends are people who I met at TVAC,” Dr. Cooper said. “Many people form lifelong friendships and bonds.” Dr. Cooper met his wife — this writer’s daughter — Dr. Abigail Cooper at TVAC. “Like all emergency services we are very much a community and support each other through good and bad times,” he said.
“We are local residents helping local people,” Rabbi Senter said. “An added benefit in having response from a local volunteer is that it is your neighbors who will be responding in an emergency. If you are relying on hospital-based ambulance, they would probably be able to get an ambulance in a reasonable amount of time, but when emergency services are overtaxed in an emergency like [Superstorm] Sandy or snowstorms, we have lots and lots of volunteers so we can respond quickly even in a major emergency. We are strongest when the community most needs us.”
“Volunteers commit a minimum of four hours per week,” he added. “Many ride more than that. We try to staff the building 24/7. Often there are four, five, or six people in the building overnight.” Rabbi Senter mentally calculated how many volunteer hours are completed each year. “We take thousands of calls per year, and two to five people go out on each call,” he said. “The average call takes one hour.” Summing it up, he concluded, “We donate in excess of 10,000 ambulance hours free to our community.”
Rabbi Senter also reported that TVAC is a model for other ambulance corps. “We’re visited by neighboring ambulance corps so they can figure out how we do it,” he said.
“We have more than 100 active members,” he continued. “The demographics are quite diverse.” One aspect of diversity of both TVAC and BVAC lies in the high percentage of women on the squads, with females comprising about 40 percent of their members. “We have women on the corps who have been members for many years, who are married with children, and younger women just starting out. Women bring a lot to the table,” Rabbi Senter said. There are times when a patient may be more comfortable being treated by a woman, and having a high proportion of female EMTs makes that possible. “Women are serving on all crews — daytime, weekend, overnight,” he continued. “Women serve and have served in every role, from president to captain, and many are crew chiefs.”
There is also linguistic diversity. “We have Spanish-speaking members,” Rabbi Senter said. Just today there was a call with a stroke victim, and it’s very important to find out when symptoms started with regard to proper treatment.” In that case, a crew member who speaks Spanish helped to obtain the necessary information quickly. “Being that we’re diverse, we’re often presented with the ability to better serve people,” Rabbi Senter said.
The work at TVAC goes beyond ambulance calls, he added. He rides on the ambulance about six hours a week and also contributes more time for administrative tasks. There are some volunteers who help out with fundraising. And members are called upon to do routine tasks, such as working on vehicle maintenance, cleaning the building, ordering materials, equipment, and supplies, stocking ambulances, and washing them. “All this is done and staffed by volunteers,” he said.
One theme that consistently arises when talking to TVAC and BVAC volunteers is the importance of spouses and families in encouraging and enabling their work.
“My wife is very supportive,” Mr. Shell said. “People are very quick to thank the EMT for giving of their time, but I believe our spouses sacrifice more than we do. We go out and get the recognition. If my spouse was not supportive it would be impossible.
“My kids like what I do,” he added. “They understand that sometimes daddy has to run, but they understand it.”
Mr. Levi said that his wife, Leah, who teaches first grade at the Moriah School, always has been supportive of his TVAC work. “You have to have a spouse willing for you to be out of the house going on calls,” he said. “They are the unsung heroes. They let the volunteers do their thing. Spousal support would be a very, very important factor in being able to volunteer.”
Rabbi Senter also noted that spouses and family members make a tremendous sacrifice. “My wife knows that I can disappear,” he said. “And during disasters we’re not home. We all leave the house. We need to acknowledge all these men and women who have wonderful spouses who make sacrifices. The volunteers give up time with their spouse and family members so they can serve the community.
“People are surprised that we are funded solely by donations and staffed by volunteers,” he continued. “We are supported by the community. In the community, people never get a bill. We’ve always been reluctant to bill for our services, because if we were to bill there may be people who would hesitate to call us during an emergency.”
The operating budget of about $300,000 for each squad includes equipment, building and facilities, ambulances, supplies, uniforms, and insurance. There are no personnel costs — volunteers contribute all the work.
TVAC and BVAC are private not-for-profit organizations. Both ambulance corps are supported mainly by donations from people and businesses in the community, with a limited annual donation from the local government. All services are provided free of charge. All donations are tax deductible.
“The public should know that our volunteers are just like them,” Mr. Shell said. “We don’t get paid. We are extremely appreciative of community support.
“If you don’t have the time or wherewithal to take on the commitment [to be an EMT], the best way to help is to donate your funds to the extent that you can,” Mr. Levi added. “They are definitely worthwhile organizations that provide services to the towns that they serve.”
For more information or to donate to TVAC, go to www.teaneckambulance.org or email email@example.com. For more information or to donate to BVAC go to www.bergenfieldambulance.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck is the Jewish Standard’s science correspondent. She is professor of biology at William Paterson University of New Jersey. Her recent book, “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World,” has tips on how to reduce the risk of infection in health care settings, the workplace, at home, school, camp, summer activities, and while traveling.